Workers comp overhaul passes Maine House

Bill undercuts injured workers, won’t create a single job

AUGUSTA – In a party-line vote of 75 to 71, Republicans in the Maine House initially voted to drastically reduce disability benefits for severely injured workers hurt on the job.

“This is among the worst affronts in a series of Republican attacks on working people this year,” said Rob Hunt, D-Buxton, who serves on the Labor, Research and Economic Development Committee, where the bill was first considered.

The bill initially passed late today caps benefits for almost all injured workers at 10 years, even if their injury still prevents them from returning to work. It also makes it harder for injured workers to qualify for benefits.

“Nobody goes on workers comp to get rich,” said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, “After 10 years, a permanent ailment doesn’t get better.”

The current law provides a safety net of benefits for severely injured employees who must deal with permanent loss of earnings. The system prevents workers who are injured on the job from suing their employers for negligence.

Tension flared during the debate as representatives shared personal stories of injuries.

Rep. Herbie Clark, D-Millinocket, was severely injured on the job at the Great Northern Paper Mill and was unable to work for two years.

“What you’re doing today is unconscionable,” said Clark. “None of you have the gumption to stand up and protect the worker who earns a living.”

Rep. Mark Bryant, D-Windham, who worked for Sappi Fine Paper Company for 20 years added, “I’ve seen the injured workers and they deserve better.”

Democrats also pointed out that the Maine’s Workers Compensation System has proven to work. Insurance premiums have declined 56 percent since 1993 when the system was first set-up while health insurance costs have been increasing.

In 2011, premiums decreased by 7 percent. According to the annual report for the Workers Compensation Board for 2012, the frequency of claims and injuries are down.

“There is no problem here,” said Erin Herbig, D-Belfast. “This won’t create a single job; it does nothing to stimulate our economy. It simply punishes the most injured workers.”

The bill faces more votes in the House and the Senate, which will likely take up the measure later tonight or tomorrow.