Battles over workers' compensation reform have become an annual ritual in the Oklahoma Legislature.
But what is workers' compensation and how does it work?
Basically, workers' compensation is a mandatory insurance program that Oklahoma employers must participate in so they can pay for the needs of employees who are injured on the job.
With few exceptions, employers are required to carry insurance to pay for the necessary medical treatment of employees who are hurt while working.
Following is a summary of some of the other benefits available and descriptions of how the system works derived from information on the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Court website, www.owcc.state.ok.us.
In addition to medical benefits, if an employee's injury renders the person unable to work for more than seven calendar days, the worker also becomes eligible for temporary total disability benefits. These benefits pay a weekly benefit of 70 percent of the worker's average weekly wage, up to a maximum amount equal to the state's average weekly wage. The benefits are paid while the person remains unable to work, but are generally limited to three years.
If an injury results in a permanent partial impairment that limits a person's ability to do certain work, the worker becomes eligible for additional payments that are determined by the type of injury. The worker also may be eligible for educational assistance and training benefits to learn another job.
If an injury leaves a worker permanently unable to work, the employee becomes eligible for permanent total disability benefits that are paid for 15 years or until the person reaches the age of maximum Social Security retirement benefits, whichever comes first.
Workers' compensation insurance also pays death benefits to the spouse and dependent children of a worker killed on the job.
It is an employee's responsibility to report an injury to a supervisor. An injury caused by a single event must be reported within 30 days, while repetitive trauma injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome must be reported within 90 days of an employee's leaving a job or the worker risks a loss of benefits.
Once an employee reports an injury, it is the employer's responsibility to promptly select a physician to provide medical treatment. The system allows an employee to challenge the employer's choice of doctor.
The system is designed to be non-adversarial so long as the injured worker and employer agree that the injury occurred on the job and can agree on the doctor, treatment and benefits.
Sometimes disagreements occur, however, and such disputes are currently handled by the state Workers' Compensation Court. There is generally a two-year time limit to file such a claim. When the clock starts ticking can vary with circumstances.
Many injured workers hire attorneys to represent them before the court, while others represent themselves.
Attorneys can charge a maximum of 10 percent of any award for contested temporary disability and 20 percent of any award for permanent disability or for a contested death case. They can also charge expenses in preparing the case for settlement or trial.