|By Ziva Branstetter and Curtis Killman, Tulsa World, Okla.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
That increase cost employers and their insurers
But figuring out the reason behind the costly increase is a challenge.
Depending on whom you ask, the increase in total awards is variously the fault of state lawmakers, judges, employers, attorneys, insurance companies or escalating medical costs.
Injured workers often also get the blame for an allegedly broken system. Some critics believe that most workers who file claims are feigning injury to collect fat paychecks and sit at home.
The state's Workers' Compensation Court system handles only a fraction of all claims, about two in 10, although they are often the most serious and expensive. The rest are handled privately, between workers and their employers.
Others who are part of the system, including a judge, questioned Bingman's conclusion that the 2011 reforms aren't working.
"Nothing works in a year completely," said Vice Presiding Judge
"This goes back to the days of Moses. If you injure someone, they are supposed to be compensated," McClure said. "My job is to make sure the injured worker doesn't get a penny more than they are entitled to."
Jobs 'tear up your body'
The World reviewed computerized data covering more than 73,000 cases filed in the court system from
The World's review shows the median award in
On a recent December morning,
Laney's claims state that in 2010 she injured her chest in a fall and last year she injured both hands, arms, right shoulder and neck. She said she hasn't been able to work since her most recent injuries on the job.
Laney said she has no insurance and has had no surgery or pain medication for the injuries she suffered.
She represented herself in the first case and received a
She said she was pressured by the district into leaving her job. The school district's attorney could not be reached for comment.
Laney said she gets by with help from friends and has applied for
"People need to realize that a lot of these jobs, they tear up your body," Laney said.
Laney was accompanied to court earlier this month by friend
"I can't do anything now. I can't work. I can't drive. I had to take pain pills just to get here today," McCoy said.
Reforms 'ignored,' 'thrown out'
For years, state lawmakers and employers have lamented the state's relatively high cost of workers' compensation insurance.
State Chamber and legislative leaders say judges have inflated the system's cost by striking down reforms. State courts have indeed ruled portions of laws dealing with workers' compensation unconstitutional in recent years.
"We keep on reforming the system, but we keep on allowing the same judges ... to tell us what's constitutional and what's not," said
"Every time there's a reform, either the court ignores the reforms or they throw them out," Seney said. "What we are looking at is a system that has grown over the years to become one of the most, if not the most, litigious in the country."
The number of employees filing claims fell more than 40 percent in the past 20 years, from about 24,700 to 14,000, records show. The rate of claims filed per worker fell also, from about 2 claims per 100 workers in 1992 to less than 1 claim per 100 workers, records show.
In almost every other category, activity in the workers' compensation system declined -- except that employers are apparently less willing to settle cases.
The World's analysis shows the same pattern that alarms lawmakers: a steady and expensive growth in total awards to injured workers.
Other patterns found in the World's data:
--Four of the top 10 employers in terms of the amount of total awards to injured workers were government agencies, including the cities of
--Not surprisingly, large companies -- including
Businesses differ in risk and other factors that drive injuries. Companies with aggressive safety programs also tend to experience lower injury rates, experts interviewed by the World said.
--Some employers on the top 10 list of total awards were small, but their employees performed risky work. Lumber company
The World's data did not include death benefits, injury dates, workers' names or case numbers due to a state law requiring that personal identifiers be redacted.
'Better than the lottery'
Seney believes reforms to the workers' compensation system haven't been radical enough and amount to "nibbling around the edges."
He said legislation in the upcoming legislative session could, for example, allow employers to opt completely out of the workers' comp system.
Seney said employers have no interest in denying legitimate claims. "We want to get these workers fixed, healed and back to work as soon as possible," he said.
"I think what we need is to provide options for the employer out there -- different ways to resolve disputes. ... This is better than the lottery if you think about it. There's a better chance of winning, and it's nontaxable."
He said an administrative court system would work better than
But Clingman disagrees.
"If you look at the top 10 costliest systems in the country, they are all administrative courts. When I was the court administrator in 1991, it was about a
The same lawmakers complaining about the system could have fixed it at any time, Clingman, Quandt and others say.
"It is very surprising that
Lawmakers froze just one key pay rate -- for permanent partial disability -- last year. That rate is the main driver of the system's cost. Weekly pay rates for two types of disability payments increased 24 percent and 12 percent during the past five years, records show.
Those rates are derived from a formula based on the employee's average weekly pay. Pay for injured workers varies depending on the type of disability and is capped at a percentage of the state's average weekly wage.
Bingman said he is unaware of the facts surrounding the escalating rates or
"I think any business -- the state included -- can always do better, and certainly in the policy areas we need to take a good look at that ... to ensure the safety of the workers," he said.
Workers' comp awards 2007-11
Employer *Total awards in millions **Estimated number of employees
*Amounts have been rounded in both categories.
<p>Acronyms for many processes and conditions dominate
IME: An independent medical examiner can be appointed in cases in which the judge wants a neutral medical professional's opinion on a worker's injuries.
PHC: A pre-hearing conference is one of two types of common hearings in Workers' Compensation Court. The other kind of a hearing is a trial.
PPD: Permanent partial disability is one of five types of disability benefits an injured worker or his family may receive, including death benefits. Judges determine, based on evidence and testimony, what percentage of total impairment the injured worker has to one or more body parts.
PTD: Permanent total disability occurs in the relatively rare cases where an employee cannot return to any kind of work due to a work-related injury.
TTD: Total temporary disability occurs when a doctor certifies that an employee can't work due to a work-related injury. The employee must be receiving treatment from a doctor designed to improve his or her condition. Employees can be released by their doctors to return to work with or without restrictions when they've reached "MMI," or maximum medical improvement.
TPD: Temporary partial disability occurs when an employee has been released by his or her doctor to return to work on a restricted basis. The benefit makes up the loss to an employee, for example, who is only allowed to work a few hours a day or a few days a week.
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