Thursday, August 5, 2010

Injured workers in Mississippi have to fight for compensation

(Here is my latest entry, a column on workers' compensation and the pro-employer Workers' Compensation Commission in Mississippi. By the way, I'm back from my summer travels across the South--from Louisiana to Virginia and North Carolina to Florida and back to Mississippi--and will now be posting more frequently on this blog. You may have noticed the recent post on migrant workers in Singapore disappeared after a couple of days. The magazine In These Times plans to publish it in its September edition and prefers previously unpublished material. I'll have it back in LaborSouth soon after the edition comes out.)

OXFORD, Miss. – It has been 25 years since I wrote my first column about workers’ compensation in Mississippi, and as I sit down to write about it again I keep coming up with French expressions like “déjà vu” and “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”).

Just like in 1985, efforts to improve the lot of workers who are injured on the job are being thwarted by conservative politicians more familiar with corporate boardrooms than assembly lines. Just like in 1985, Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom of most indices in the way it treats injured workers and their families.

However, something has indeed changed: The lot of those workers is even worse than it was in 1985. In fact, according to Jackson plaintiffs’ attorney Roger K. Doolittle, it’s so bad that “this is unprecedented in Mississippi jurisprudence.”

How bad is it?

A year ago this month, the state House Insurance Committee held a hearing on findings in a study ordered by Doolittle that showed the three members of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission—Chairman Liles Williams, John Junkin, and Augustus Collins II (who recently stepped down)—siding decisively with the employer in most cases before them, particularly in reversals of administrative court decisions.

For example, 77 percent of the reversals of administrative judge rulings sought by Williams were in favor of the employer. For Junkin, 91 percent of the reversals were for the employer’s benefit. For Collins, 75 percent were for the employer.

Although the committee discussed the possibility of a state investigation into the commission and its actions, House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton told me recently that such an investigation is “still in limbo.”

“You’ve got judges that collectively have the highest experience rate in the history of the (workers compensation) act, and they are being reversed at the rate of about 80 percent,” Doolittle said, referring to reversals of decisions favoring the employee. “What they want is for people like me to stop representing poor people.”

Jackson attorney John Jones agrees with Doolittle’s findings. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a commission this conservative. … The irony is that by statute and by history, (workers compensation) is supposed to be tilted toward the worker. The worker is supposed to get the benefit of all doubt.”

Not in Mississippi, the last state in the nation to adopt a workers’ compensation law and perennially among the bottom feeders among states in what it pays injured workers or their families in cases of death. Statistics can be hard to find, but some 80 workers in Mississippi died in work-related injuries in 2008. Jones estimates approximately 13,000 workers were injured on the job every year, and many more may go unreported.

State Workers’ Compensation Commission Chairman Williams, whose first six-year term ends in December, said Doolittle’s numbers are misleading because they don’t include affirmations of court rulings that would present a more balanced picture. Even so, his own numbers show a pro-employer tilt: 59 percent of cases for the employer, 41 percent for the employee.

“I don’t think it is accurate to say we are biased,” said Williams, a veteran political figure in Mississippi and former vice president of the Stuart C. Irby Co. in Jackson. “We objectively make what we believe is the right decision based on the law.”

For Jackson attorneys Lance Stevens and Rogen Chhabra, the problems is the makeup of the commission itself, all gubernatorial appointees, none of whom had prior workers’ compensation experience. Due to the complexity of workers’ compensation law, “I would prefer that all three commissioners were lawyers,” Stevens said.

Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Greenville-based Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, said that “more of a fair and even playing field” is needed for workers in Mississippi, something the state Legislature and other political leaders need to recognize. “We go back every year to the same well to draw water. It’s frustrating and demoralizing. People are not willing to move an inch. We’re not even talking about a mile.”

Déjà vu.

1 comment:

  1. I agree whole heartedly with your article. I have been demoralized by the workmen's compensation system for 1 year and 8 months.
    Their silence tactics of not paying me back pay for time owed even though my attorney has proved the ttd monies are owed to me. They don't re-spond to my attorney's attempts to collect back pay that is owed to me, which I might add was held before the commission judge and ordered to pay. As of December 2, 2011, I still have not received my pay. My attorney tells me that their tactic is to ignore our letters. I just don't believe legally the Insurance commissions and judges that run this system, allow the employees to be treated so badly. I just want whats owed to me.
    Thank you for listening
    Beaten down but not broken