CHATTANOOGA, TN (AP) The difficulty of reforming Tennessee’s workers’ compensation law was apparent during a conference in Chattanooga, with business favoring a particular change and workers’ groups strenuously opposed to it.
Gov. Phil Bredesen made it clear last month he expects a workers’ compensation bill of some kind this year, saying the current law is harming business within the state and keeping others out.
Three of his commissioners are working with a legislative committee to come up with something.
Sen. Ward Crutchfield, D-Chattanooga and a member of that Joint Workers’ Compensation Committee, said the governor may get his wish, but it won’t come easily.
“I think there ought to be something worked out this year, but it’s not going to be quick,” Crutchfield said.
Economic Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and Labor Commissioner Jim Neeley, two of the three cabinet members on the joint committee, were in Chattanooga on Feb. 6 for a two-hour meeting with business owners.
Bruce Young, president of Chattanooga-based SMP Industries, said the forum was a “great opportunity.”
“I’m grateful to Gov. Bredesen for putting [the issue] on the table,” said Young, whose business is a small manufacturing company.
State business representatives say one of the main problems with Tennessee’s system is that cases go through the courts, as opposed to an administrative review process of some sort, as is common in other states.
Another problem, Neeley said, is a “multiplier” added to the law in 1992 in an effort to cap industrial disability payments.
The multiplier allows judges in a workers’ compensation case to increase a doctor’s determination of impairment by up to 2.5 times for an injured worker able to return to the same or a similar job. An employee who cannot return to work after an injury could have his impairment raised by as much as a factor of six.
Kisber said this unique feature of Tennessee’s law is “driving a big part of the cost difference between us and other states.”
Neeley said the multiplier is “the most predominant problem we’ve got. Industry has told us that if we don’t do anything else, we’ve got to solve [that] piece.”
He said the multiplier must be reduced to one, which would in effect eliminate it.
Crutchfield said he will keep an open mind but would not favor a measure that would “destroy the benefits of the working people of Tennessee.”
Chattanooga attorney Tom Wyatt, who said his practice consists mostly of workers’ compensation cases, said reducing the multiplier to one would be “horrific.”
“Say I’m picking up a box of files, blow out my back and have surgery,” he said. “I can go back to work 95 percent of the time. A construction worker [with the same injury] may have only a 5 percent chance of going back to work after surgery.
“With a multiplier of one, he’s going to get the same percentage of disability and the same award. This wouldn’t take into account the lost earning capacity of those two workers, and [the multiplier] is designed to compensate lost earning capacity,” he said.
Tony Troutman, former president of United Steelworkers of America Local 3967, said he was disappointed in the stand taken by Neeley, a former state AFl-CIO president.
“I hate to see him taking this stance on something that important,” Troutman said. “He’s done so much for unions in this state, but this is not a stance that will be helpful to workers. It will predominantly benefit the companies.”
Neeley predicted organized labor likely will split on reform, as will trial lawyers.
Troutman said union workers might split along age lines, with younger workers more likely to oppose reform than older workers.
But Wyatt, the attorney, said he sees no potential for division in the ranks of his colleagues, at least on the multiplier question.
“I will tell you that the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association will be adamantly against any reform in workers’ compensation law that would reduce benefits to a multiplier of one.” he said.