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.
In one room, Yancy Forbes, an Oklahoma City police officer, explained from the witness stand how he tore his rotator cuff in a fight with a suspect last April and then spent six weeks in a sling and several more in physical therapy.
“Sometimes I have pain when I wake up,” Forbes, in his police officer uniform, told the judge, Michael McGivern. “I have at least 15 years left in my career that I need to stay in shape, I need to be physical.”
Down the hall, George and Velda Hill waited their turn to meet with their legal representative, a woman they had never met.
George Hill shattered his back in 2007 while trying to keep a wheelchair-bound passenger from slipping off a ramp on the transit van he used to drive in his hometown of Sulphur.
The court awarded the 77-year-old $14,000 several years ago for what was considered then a temporary partial injury. Now, years after the money has run out and Hill is still unable to work — “Sometimes I faint, the pain is so bad” — he is back in court seeking permanent disability.
The couple, who drive to Oklahoma City regularly to see a half-dozen different medical specialists as part of the arbitration process, complained that the problem with workers' comp in Oklahoma is that everyone is fighting to get their hands on the money George Hill may ultimately be due.
“I would think they would treat it more like insurance than a profit-making business for lawyers and doctors,” said Velda Hill, 74.
Push for changes
But while the injured complain of wasted time and money in the workers' compensation system, top lawmakers complain the system costs businesses too much and is prone to fraud and abuse.
Proponents of the new reform measures say they could save businesses 10 to 15 percent in premiums each year by transferring workers' comp to an administrative one, as well as other changes.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, lead author of the bill, said Oklahoma's workers' comp system is among the most expensive in the nation, with the frequency of claims the highest in an eight-state region and with payouts nearly double the regional average.
The proposals would soften those costs for businesses and tone down the role of courts and attorneys in the process all while improving the service available to injured workers, said Bingman, R-Sapulpa.
“The purpose is to expedite when a worker gets hurt, make sure they're getting medical attention immediately and returning that worker to work as soon as possible,” he said. “In our current system, having the attorneys involved slows down the process. Our cases are not being closed in a timely manner, they're churning for a long time, and that adds costs not only to the employer but it adds to the medical costs.”
Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage said he will oppose the proposal. Effective workers' comp reform should focus more on curbing medical costs and physician abuse and less on reducing benefits for injured workers, he said.
A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin said Bingman's bill is “on the right track.” Alex Weintz said Fallin endorses the idea of an administrative system but stopped short of endorsing it in its entirety.
“What we want to do is treat injured workers fairly, reduce the adversarial nature of the system, reduce delay times in the system, address medical costs, and we think that moving to an administrative system is the best way to do that,” Weintz said.
Meanwhile, back across the street at Workers' Compensation Court, Haywood did not get any closer to the money she needs to fix her hands. Attorneys representing the other side did not show up, and a judge reset her conference for another date.
Until then, she will keep working as many hours as she can get in a day before the pain becomes unbearable.
“Life goes on,” she said. “OG&E don't care if you got a case pending — they want their money.”
And the Hills made their long trek back to Sulphur. With promises of a $30,000 settlement, they said they hope they don't ever have to come back.
“We got enough to fix the house to where the front porch doesn't fall off,” Velda Hill said. “It's been five and a half years; I'm just thankful to be done.”