Mississippi legislators offered sharply different views of a bill they passed Monday to change the way compensation is awarded to workers injured on the job, or to survivors of those killed at work.
If Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signs the bill, it will become law July 1. The measure has been pushed by the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and other business groups.
The bill passed the House 63-56 and the Senate 31-15. The bill is Senate Bill 2576.
Supporters, including Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said the bill is a way to bring balance to a system that has long favored injured workers. He said the changes might reduce employers’ premiums for workers’ compensation insurance.
“To me, it’s a lot more about fairness than it is about payments,” Formby said.
Opponents said the changes would make it difficult for people who are hurt on the job, or for survivors of those who are killed, to receive compensation.
“What this legislation boils down to is a direct assault on the working class people in the state of Mississippi,” said Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens. “If this bill becomes law, what it’s going to do is place burdens on our workers that no other state in the union places on theirs.”
Among other things, the bill says no compensation would be owed to a worker who is found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including the improper use of legal prescription drugs, when an on-the-job injury occurs. Current law does not specifically mention drugs or alcohol but says no compensation is owed to the worker “if the intoxication of the employee was the proximate cause of the injury.”
Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, said testing for prescription drugs or other drugs “may be worse for workers.”
Sen. Will Longwitz, R-Madison, who supported the bill, said the provisions are designed to make workplaces safer. He also said the bill will allow employers to test intoxicated workers “without being worried about being dragged into court.”
The bill also sets a 60-day deadline for a worker who is hurt on the job to file medical records that support his claim for compensation. Current law doesn’t mention a deadline.
It also would allow a partial reduction in payments to any workers who is injured on the job but had pre-existing conditions such as a bad back. Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, who opposed the bill, said back injuries are common.
“When you have a claim like I talked about under a pre-existing injury, you’re letting big insurance companies and corporations off the hook,” Johnson said. “And then you’re turning around and putting it back on the taxpayer because if workman’s compensation doesn’t pay that guy who’s been put out of work, Medicaid, Medicare, hospital emergency rooms, the people in the state of Mississippi will have to pay for it.”
Opponents of the bill said employers have long benefited from the workers’ compensation system because it allows a three-person administrative commission to make decisions about workers’ claims, keeping some of the claims from becoming protracted lawsuits.
The bill makes some changes that supporters said would help workers, but critics said the changes are tiny.
A spouse of a worker killed on the job could receive $1,000 under the new plan, up from the current $250. Funeral benefits go from $2,000 to $5,000. And the weekly payment for an injured worker for rehabilitation would go from $10 to $25.
Some House members moaned as Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, explained the increase in payments.
“I hear all the cat calls,” Formby said, but he noted that improved benefits could only be passed as part of the larger bill.