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Injured workers in Oklahoma seek compensation in adversarial system

Hundreds of Oklahomans spent most of a weekday morning last week in the crowded corridors of the Denver Davison Building in Oklahoma City, where the state's injured workers go for financial relief.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD Published: February 24, 2013

She hoped she could stave off the pain in her wrists with Tylenol, but when carpal tunnel syndrome started eating into her paycheck, Diane Haywood knew she needed to take action.

On Wednesday, Haywood, 61, made her first venture into Workers' Compensation Court to try to recover some of what she's already lost.

The Oklahoma City woman, a medical transcriptionist for almost half her life, is one of hundreds who spent most of a weekday morning last week in the crowded corridors of the Denver Davison Building, where the state's injured workers go for financial relief.

“It's kind of scary because you don't know how this is going to affect your employment,” Haywood said. “I think a lot of people have problems, but they want to work. They're afraid you'll get red-flagged, you know — this is a bad employee.”

More than $378 million in benefits was paid out in 2012 via court order or settlements to workers such as Haywood who suffer permanent disability from on-the-job injuries.

With state employers paying nearly a billion dollars annually in workers' comp premiums, reforming a system most Oklahomans never even come into contact with has become the No. 1 priority for the Republican-led state Legislature.

A 260-page bill unveiled last week is touted by its authors as a permanent fix to an inefficient and adversarial comp system that puts the state at a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining businesses.

The thrust of the revisions, at least initially, seems focused on reducing the number and dollar amount of claims to which workers like Haywood would have access.

Mixed in with more dramatic changes — a switch from a court-based system to an administrative one, and from obligatory participation to one in which businesses could opt out — are significant revisions that would impact the ability of workers to recover wages lost because of work-related injuries.

Haywood's condition, which forced her to cut back from full-time to less than part-time last September and subsequently reduced her annual wages by more than half, would not be covered under the new proposal.

“I am conservative and I want them to be fiscally responsible, but there's ways to do it without doing away with benefits to the workers,” said her attorney, E.W. Keller, a former Republican lawmaker. “If it's not adversarial, who represents the worker for his rights? Nobody.”

Included in the proposal are revisions that would reduce by one-third the amount of time a disabled worker can collect reimbursement, that strip protections to prevent employers from firing an injured employee based on their absence from work, and that would make it more difficult to meet filing and appeal deadlines.

The new law would cut in half the statute of limitations for filing a workers' comp claim, would reduce the amount of time a worker could file a claim for a cumulative job-related injury from two years of the last date of employment to within 90 days that the disease or trauma first manifested itself, and would require employees to notify their bosses of an injury within three working days instead of 30.

About 60 percent of workers who find themselves in workers' compensation court make less than the average annual wage in Oklahoma, said Michael Clingman, the court's administrator. Fewer than 1 percent of the state's 1.5 million workers file workers' comp claims in any given year.

Pleading their cases

None of the injured workers who waited for hearings and trials Wednesday and Thursday of last week were aware of the proposed reform measures unveiled on Monday across the street at the state Capitol.

“It's a foreign thing to them,” Clingman said. “The vast majority of people never go to a hearing here. And of the 14,000 or so claims filed, there's only about 5,000 actual hearings — a lot of the cases are just settled.”

Filling benches that line both sides of the courthouse hallway, injured workers, sometimes with spouses or children in tow, waited most of the morning for either a court hearing or a settlement conference. Lawyers scurried up and down the hallways, often battling for an empty conference room or having discussions with clients where they sat on the bench.

In 10 small courtrooms, judges heard testimony and reviewed medical reports while attorneys representing claimants and insurance companies pleaded financial mercy for their clients.

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