Another Year and Nothing Changes
By Tracy W. Cary
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, "The more things change, the more they remain the same.” But in Alabama, at least as it pertains to some needed changes in the workers’ compensation law, the more things remain the same, the more things never change. Another year and nothing changes. Once again, the Alabama Legislature neglected an opportunity during the 2019 legislative session to do something more to protect injured workers. Instead, they kicked the can down the road.
First, let’s retrace our steps to figure out how we got to where we still are. Alabama adopted its first workers’ compensation law in 1919. Happy 100th birthday.
I hate to say it Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, but you sure look your age. Did you know that the last major revision of Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act came in 1992? Twenty-seven years ago? It’s true.
Since then, we’ve been stuck on the hamster wheel of going nowhere.
Why do we need changes? Our law that supposedly protects injured workers is so bad that a judge struck down the law as unconstitutional.
See the story here: https://www.al.com/business/2017/05/a_judge_ruled_alabamas_workers.html
Just as an example of how bad the law is, did you know that if you have a permanent injury in Alabama, say you are 99% disabled from an on the job injury, the most you can get paid is $220 per week? That’s the equivalent of $5.50 per hour. And generally the longest period of time you can get paid those benefits is only 300 weeks. Less than six years for a lifetime permanent injury. And it’s been that way since 1987 or so.
Sure there have been a few attempts to change the law. I have to point out that while the law is already bad, some folks want it to be worse. As an example, Senator Arthur Orr from Decatur (who is also a high ranking executive for Cook’s Pest Control) has introduced a number of bills to change the workers’ compensation law. One of his attempted revisions would have limited workers’ compensation for permanent total disability to the employee’s 65th birthday or 500 weeks, instead of indefinitely, as is now the case. It also would end an employer’s obligation to continue paying for an injury if an employee does not seek medical treatment for his injury for four years and limit liability for future benefits. A few years later, Sen. Orr tried to close off future medical benefits after just one year of not seeing the doctor. It’s a good thing those attempts failed and the law stayed the same.
Then, the Alabama State Bar tried to get involved to change the law. The Bar’s president appointed a task force of lawyers on both sides - those who represent injured workers and those who represent employers, corporations and insurance companies. The task force worked hard, reached compromises, and hammered out some proposed changes. Then ... wait for it ....... nothing happened. The efforts went nowhere and the workers’ compensation law stayed the same.
In this year’s legislative session, there was never a single bill offered in either the House or the Senate that would make changes to the workers’ compensation law.
What about next year? There’s always next year, right? Well, next year, 2020, is an election year. And do you know what happens in an election year? Just about nothing that’s considered controversial.
So what does that mean? It means that we are going to have to hold our collective breath until 2021 to see if the Alabama Legislature fixes some of the glaring problems with the law. Or maybe, another courageous judge will have the fortitude to strike the law down once again.
Grab your popcorn. Watch the paint dry. It’ll be more exciting than hoping the Alabama legislature ever changes the workers’ compensation law to make things better for injured workers in this State.
Same old song and dance.
Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.
Another year and nothing changes.
Better luck next year.