As I write this, Governor Christie has just vetoed a proposed change to the New Jersey workers’ compensation statute that would have guaranteed benefits to a particular interest group and liberalized the law further in his state. I make no judgment about the legitimacy of the proposed change in New Jersey, but do feel compelled to comment on an accelerating trend among the states in this important development of workers’ compensation exposure; that is, change seems to be afoot in many jurisdictions.
Change is by its very nature disturbing to some and invigorating to others. It often implies a need or a gap that should be addressed. Are there gaps or needs in the various workers’ compensation systems across our great nation? Indeed, and in so many locales, significant in effect. Our friends in California have taken yet another massive stab at change, aka reform, in a particular system that most have considered broken for decades. Only time will tell if that effort will bring any measurable improvement where, historically, reform efforts have not achieved their typically lofty goals.
With similar drivers for gap closing, but with much more focused intent comes the “opt-out” legislation in Oklahoma. While still making its way through the legislative process there, this bit of “change” may prove to be a harbinger of true choice alternative, the essence of which offers the greatest hope since Texas’ non- subscription alternative, offered up nearly 100 years ago.
The hope? That employers might finally gain a bit more control over a system run amuck in so many states. Yes, even with the best of intentions beginning in the 19th century, the workers’ compensation systems of the states have migrated far from their roots originally designed to protect from the cost and proof burden of on the job accidents and ease the process burden in the interest of worker “welfare.” It seems, however, that that early recognition of a need for such help turned a once-pure motive of workforce assistance into a 50-state labyrinth of full employment security for lawyers and system exploitation by ill-motivated and sometimes flat-out wrong-headed employees who may or may not have really needed the help.
Regardless of the vagaries or pitfalls of a system far from its original design, system change is appearing often and seems to stand a better than historical average chance of improving the odds that injured workers will get what they deserve; timely, effective and efficient benefit delivery. It seems possible now that this change wave may even foster an improved relationship between employees and employers that may have some positive impact on U.S. businesses and their most valuable asset – a happy, contented workforce that can, more often than not, assume their employer really does care about their “welfare” and deliver such without enabling a “welfare state” mentality.
So keep your eyes on Oklahoma and watch the coming wave of change that just might deliver on the original intent of the workers’ compensation statutory framers of what we know of today as our workers’ compensation system.
Chris Mandel, SVP, Strategic Solutions