A blatantly unconstitutional workers' compensation bill is working its way through the Legislature that could literally cost taxpayers an arm and a leg while eroding the basic rights and freedoms of all Oklahoma workers in favor of corporate control.
Of the many flaws included in Senate Bill 1062, awarding big business the luxury of opting out of the current workers' compensation system, may very well be the most flagrant foul. If the state's largest employers are allowed to simply drop out to avoid insurance premiums, small- and medium-sized employers will suffer under the weight of significantly higher insurance rates, forcing many out of business and into the unemployment line.
Companies that choose to opt out of the system and then later decide to drop its self-regulated ERISA policy would be relying on taxpayers as the safety net for covering medical costs for the most severely injured workers. This is a very slippery slope that would leave workers bare, at the mercy of unscrupulous insurers and indifferent employers. Think Oklahoma employers could never fall into this category? Consider the corporate negligence that came into the national spotlight following the 1974 death of Kerr-McGee employee Karen Silkwood.
Also consider the more recent example of Robin Ahrens, who at the age of 20, fell 35 feet to the ground from an oil rig due to an improperly installed guardrail, suffering debilitating, permanent injuries. Ahrens was employed by Unit Drilling Company, one of the largest onshore drilling companies in the United States, and a lead proponent of SB 1062. Companies in Unit Drilling's position that choose to opt out would no longer be subject to Oklahoma workers' compensation law and cases like Ahrens' could easily find its way to federal court (aka ObamaComp).
Employers who think they can have the best of both worlds, deciding what benefits to provide their injured workers and what doctors they can see, while also avoiding being sued in district court are simply misinformed. It is legally impossible. The current system has shielded small and big businesses from runaway juries for a century, saving employers from unpredictable jury verdicts and huge legal defense bills in district court.
Comprehensive reforms passed in 2011 have not been in effect long enough for the cost savings to the system to take hold. Proponents of SB 1062, including The State Chamber, know this and are now engaged in a full-court press at the Capitol in an effort to move the needle in favor of big business before the impact of those reforms are evident.
SB 1062 is desperate and it is overreaching.
Burke is a workers' compensation attorney, author, historian and former Oklahoma secretary of commerce.