House Dem Leaders Join Protest Against Haslam’s Workers’ Comp Revamp

A few dozen people, including members of the Tennessee AFL-CIO and other labor groups, gathered on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday afternoon to express their opposition Gov. Haslam’s proposed changes to workers’ compensation.

The ralliers, waving signs and chanting “Save Workers’ Comp,” were joined by Democratic leaders from the state House of Representatives who address the crowd and promised to continue to oppose the reform measure, House Bill 194, sponsored by Republican Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner had strong words for the governor and GOP supermajority on the matter, calling the legislation “just wrong,” “shameful” and “immoral.”

“This administration and this legislature have cut every tax they could cut on the wealthy and they’re paying for it on the backs of working people,” said the Old Hickory Democrat. “This workers comp bill is just one more example of that and it may be the worst of all that I have seen.”

Among a myriad of changes to current workers’ comp policy, the proposed overhaul would tighten the definitions of workplace injury, change the way benefits are calculated, and move the final say in adjudicating disputed claims from the courts to a governor-appointed panel.

Opponents argue that the net effect of the legislation would be to reduce benefits for workers who are injured on the job. Supporters contend that a revamp is needed to help Tennessee compete in attracting companies.

In a video posted on the governor’s Youtube channel last month, Haslam called the current workers’ comp system “outdated” and said the changes would help both workers and businesses by simplifying the process. “This system will help employees to receive their benefits faster…At the same time, it will give employers more certainty in what has been a complex, unpredictable and often inefficient process,” Haslam said. “This proposal builds on our ongoing efforts to make sure that we have an attractive business climate that encourages investment in Tennessee.”

During his state-of-the-state address two months ago, Haslam linked his plans for workers’ compensation changes to his legislative push to cap civil lawsuits during his first year in office.

“To provide certainty to businesses, we overhauled our tort laws,” the governor told lawmakers at the Jan. 28  joint session of the General Assembly. “To build on those efforts, this year we’re proposing legislation to reform our worker’s compensation laws. During my first year in office, I held business roundtables across the state where we heard from businesses over and over that worker’s comp is an issue in Tennessee. We spent last year working with stakeholders to find ways to improve our system with a focus on fairness to both the employee and employer, and we believe the worker’s comp bill we’re proposing does just that.”

But House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, echoing an argument often heard from lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, told ralliers that Haslam’s plan in fact creates more government red tape.

The bill, argued the Ripley lawmaker, would add “another administrative branch, basically, to government which is something that we certainly don’t need to do. We have the court system that’s working well–we’re going to put another agency on top of this that;s not well-thought-out, that’s not funded and can only have bad circumstances.”

Fitzhugh also expressed concern that the governor’s plan was being rushed through the legislature without examining all facets of the issue. “The costs [to employers] are coming from medical costs and this bill doesn’t even touch those at all, it only looks at the already-reduced benefits to an injured employee,” Fitzhugh told the crowd.

Rally participants vowed to keep trying to persuade Haslam to drop his push on the legislation, moving the event indoors to present the governor’s office with a thick stack of letters from workers in the state expressing their opposition. But it appears unlikely that the measure will face much resistance as it moves through the Republican-dominated Legislature.

The house version of the bill has survived three committee votes and is scheduled to go before the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee Wednesday. The Senate version, SB200, has been sent to the Calendar Committee for scheduling on the Senate floor.