Michigan Legislature considering changes to workers comp

Nov 9, 2011

Republicans in the state Legislature want to change Michigan’s workers compensation law. They say the changes would help Michigan businesses by reducing what business owners pay in insurance premiums.

Democrats say the changes would also reduce the amount of money given to many injured workers.       

Michael Czinski was hurt on the job as a police officer a few years ago. He broke his wrist in a fall and damaged an artery that supplied blood to the area. Three surgeries later, he has limited use of his right hand.

“I can write somewhat, it’s painful, it’s hard to type, I definitely can’t shoot my weapon anymore…,” said Czinski.

He’s had to learn how to do every-day tasks with his left hand.

“Shaving, a lot of the eating, it’s hard to hang onto utensils,” he said.

And the right hand still hurts, Czinski said:

“Daily pain. 24 hours a day. And the workman’s comp has stopped treatment of it, so I’m pretty much stuck with it now.”

When Czinski was hurt, workers-comp paid him about 60 percent of his wages, or $644 a week. But then a vocational counselor appointed by the insurance company determined since Czinski could no longer be a police officer, he should get a job as a state worker with the Department of Human Services.

Czinski applied for the job but was never contacted for an interview. That didn’t matter to the insurance company, who reduced his workers comp benefits based on how much he would have been making if he got the job. That took his payments down to $190 a week. The insurance company calls that money he could be making, his “earning capacity.”

Critics of the proposal call that “phantom wages.”

“It’s probably the most damaging to those least-able to protect themselves, and that is the lower-wage earners."

That’s workers-comp attorney and former Michigan Association of Justice president Rick Warsh. He said it’s not fair to penalize an injured worker just because a job exists somewhere that they could do.

“So if you can be, say, a greeter at Walmart or Meijers, or be a security guard where all you have to do is monitor security monitors in a chair – there may only be a thousand of those jobs available in the state, none of them may be available to you, and yet they still get a credit for it,” said Warsh.

Recent Michigan Supreme Court orders indicate reducing someone’s benefits based on earning capacity could be legal, and Republicans in the state Legislature want to codify those court orders to make things more predictable for business owners.

State Representative Brad Jacobsen’s family owns a small business. He says he knows how damaging working with workers comp can be.

“Yeah, our family has flower shops and green houses, 92-year-old business that great-grandpa got started, and as a small business owner we had a couple fraudulent claims, along with a few legitimate minor cuts and stitches and things, and back in the mid-80s we had trouble getting workers comp insurance, and paid a very long price for that insurance, because, in part, of two fraudulent claims,” Jacobson said.

Supporters of the workers comp proposal say it would work against fraudulent injury claims from workers and encourage injured workers to find some type of job. Wendy Block is with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

She told lawmakers that the measure would “increase certainty for employers and employees alike, keep premiums affordable for job providers, and generally make Michigan more competitive in its workers comp system as well.”

Rick Warsh disagrees:

“What this bill basically does is it moves the law about three clicks to the right, and then nails it shut,” he said.

“I’m a political realist – the fact of the matter is we have a Republican House in the state, we have a Republican Senate, we have a Republican governor. But when you get a law that is skewed so far one way, it’s bound to have some serious repercussions.”

Flint-based workers-comp attorney Robert MacDonald believes that if people who can’t work have their workers-comp benefits cut, they’re going to have to get assistance from somewhere else.

“If that happens, the taxpayers will be asked to step up to the plate and help people out,” MacDonald said.

“You’ll have people applying for state disability assistance, Medicaid, it’s not a free-ride here for these injuries. Someone is going to have to take care of these people when they’re hurt on the job.”

Michael Czinski said even though he did not get the job he was told he could reasonably do for the state, he’s still looking for jobs that would not require him to use his hands too much.

“They say they’re out there, but I don’t know where,” he said. “Especially with the economy, I just don’t know where they’re at.”