I wonder how many Oklahoma workers injured on the job don’t file workers’ compensation claims because they feel their employer would retaliate against them by either firing them outright or limiting their career advancement?
This is a question virtually impossible to answer because of its built-in paradox-suppression equals invisibility-but any reasonable person would have to concede that it happens, especially among long-term workers with chronic injuries that have developed over many years because of repetitive physical tasks or repetitive body positioning.
Here are some questions that might go through injured workers’ minds: Will I lose my job if I file a claim? Will I be reassigned to a position that pays less money? Will I become known as someone who complains too much and thus not given raises or promoted?
But these aren’t the type of questions getting much attention in this year’s GOP legislative quest to “reform” the workers’ compensation system, which pays people injured on their jobs for lost work time and medical expenses.
What workers’ compensation reform seems to mean to many Oklahoma GOP legislators is reducing the financial amount of awarded claims for on-the-job injuries and reducing an employee’s ability to file an injury claim. This, goes the logic, will reduce the amount of money any given company will have to pay for workers’ compensation insurance. Reform, under this definition, means human pain and suffering is secondary to corporate interests.
Before the right-wing co-opted the language of the progressive movement, using terms like “reform” to promote the power of the few over the many, huge strides were made in developing and protecting worker rights. The idea of workers’ compensation due to injuries dates back to the nineteenth century, and developing and sustaining workers’ rights from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1980s was most often associated with the language of progressive reform. The labor movement has since its inception pushed consistently for workplace safety. It was even a Republican, former President Richard Nixon, who signed into law the bill creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970.
In Oklahoma and other conservative states, the word “reform” now means rolling back rights and advances for workers in order to promote the interests of corporations.
A workers’ compensation measure, Senate Bill 1062, is now under negotiation in the House. Its principal purpose is to change the current workers’ compensation system from a judicial process to an administrative process, but legislators have also pushed for reducing award amounts and limiting the time period for claims.
One of the provisions, according to media reports, would reduce disability wage benefits by 30 percent. This is based on the premise that wage benefits aren’t taxed, and thus the state should only pay 70 percent of its average weekly wage rate. Other provisions, since removed from the bill, would have reduced benefits to amputees and spouses of workers killed on the job, and reduced the amount of time in which a claim could be made from 30 days to three days. There is a potential that these provisions could be restored in some form as the bill makes its way through the legislature where disagreements on it remain between the House and Senate.
Legislators are also discussing whether some companies should be allowed to opt-out of the system entirely if they provided compensation benefits on their own.
The bottom line is that no one is discussing statistics like these: In 2010, 91 workers were killed on the job in Oklahoma. In 2011, there were more than 49,000 recorded on-the-job injuries. The discussion among Republicans is mostly limited to how to help companies pay less in insurance while reducing benefits for workers.
To return to my first question, no one seems, as well, to be discussing how many on-the-job injuries go unreported, especially in a weak job market in which workers might feel fearful of losing their jobs.
It’s clear the intent of SB 1062 is to erode workers’ benefits and rights. Let’s hope it dies in a storm of legislative bickering this session.