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Capitol Hill Conversation: Repairing Workers’ Compensation


 A plan to overhaul the way workers’ compensation claims are handled will be debated in the Tennessee General Assembly this week. Under the current system, if there is a dispute between an employer and an employee over how much money is owed, the disagreement is usually settled by a judge.

“Only Tennessee and Alabama involve the courts like this,” said Blake Farmer who covers the state Capitol for WPLN.

It’s an arrangement that has left many unhappy. Some employers claim the current system is too costly, while injured workers complain it takes too long to get paid.

Small businesses are probably the most dissatisfied with the status quo and have been lobbying hardest for changes. Many smaller companies do not have an attorney on the payroll. “Lawyers, as we know, are not cheap and they [small businesses] have to hire one for what can often be years of litigation” explained Farmer. “But more than that they feel it is too easy to take advantage of the current system.”

Governor Bill Haslam wants a new, independent agency to take the place of the courts and mediate disagreements over workers’ compensation, but that’s not all the governor thinks should change. Current law gives injured workers the benefit of the doubt in disputes over compensation. Haslam’s proposal says only that claims should be granted “fairly and impartially.”

Thus, workers worry the new agency may give employers the upper-hand. “They [workers] are nervous about it. This is a dramatic shift,” said Farmer. “However, they acknowledge it can sometimes take years [in the courts] to reach agreement and these are people who can maybe no longer work and they can’t pay their bills—they get a car repossessed, their house foreclosed on in the meantime.”

President of the Tennessee chapter of the AFL-CIO Jerry Lee predicts payouts will likely shrink if the governor’s plan is implemented, but he said if money can be doled out in a more timely manner, then the changes might be for the better. 

“I’ve got numerous friends who’ve been seriously injured that if they didn’t loose everything they had, they came close to losing everything they had waiting on the system,” said Lee. “It has been a burden to injured employees.”