A bill increasing benefits for Wyoming workers injured on the job has been signed into law by Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
House Bill 54 addresses workers’ compensation rules that have for years generated complaints from injured workers and some employers. It includes larger benefit payments for surviving spouses of injured workers.
Supporters said successful passage of the bill during an economic downturn and a legislative session when many other health-related bills fell by the wayside is remarkable.
“I think we did some good work for the working men and women of Wyoming,” said Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, a major supporter of the legislation.
“My goal when we started this was to enhance benefits for employees and not burden employers, and I believe we’ve accomplished that,” he added.
The major provisions in the bill will:
-Increase the pay for surviving spouses of injured workers.
-Provide a cost-of-living increase of about 3 percent for workers who are permanently disabled.
-Extend from 21 to 25 the age that children of killed or injured works may receive college tuition benefits.
-Stipulate that the state workers’ compensation agency must help pay for litigation costs in cases when it stands to benefit financially from lawsuits involving injured workers.
Advocates for reform have long complained that the system no longer provides adequate benefits to injured workers, who by state law do not have the right to sue their employers in most cases of workplace injury.
Acting on those concerns, advocacy groups organized hearings around the state and helped injured workers tell their stories to legislators considering the issue.
Lawmakers said that the injured-worker stories, and those who helped carry their message to the public, convinced members of the House and Senate that change was needed.
“In a year when we’re getting ready to go into a recession, it was a pretty amazing victory,” said Kim Floyd, spokesman of the AFL-CIO in Wyoming, who was among those who helped organize community forums and injured workers.
Floyd called the final version of the legislation a “great compromise.”
Rep. Jack Landon, chairman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, said the bill has probably taken care of most of the major concerns about the workers’ compensation program.
The changes will improve the “safety net” for injured workers, their families and the families of those killed on the job, he said.
The changes will require an additional $10 million a year from the state workers’ compensation fund and a $150,000 appropriation from the state general fund for an additional hearing examiner to reduce case backlogs, and for some technology improvements.
The new law also includes a provision that will allow the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Division to reimburse employers for a portion of their contributions if the workers’ compensation account carries excess funds.
Officials said that with the recent downturn in the national economy, and losses to the nearly $1 billion fund, it’s unclear whether that will happen.
Steve Czoschke, state Workers’ Safety and Compensation Division administrator, said the bill reflects the diligence and hard work of the House and Senate labor committees in pursuing and passing a bill that’s fair to employees as well as employers.
The agency is already preparing to implement the changes when the bill becomes effective on July 1, Czoschke said.
A separate workers’ compensation bill that would have extended benefits to emergency service workers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder did not pass the Legislature.