Eyebrows were raised when Republican state Sen. Harry Coates of Seminole joined a Democratic colleague and union officials in filing a lawsuit challenging a major workers' compensation overhaul. What's truly mind-boggling is Coates' reasoning, not his choice of political bedfellows.
Among other things, Coates declared, “It's wrong that a firefighter or any other injured worker should have to pay back benefits after returning to work.”
We might agree — if the new law retroactively seized payments from injured workers. It doesn't.
Coates' objection appears to center on permanent partial disability (PPD) awards, which include “sprains and strains” payments. Under Senate Bill 1062, a PPD award is deferred and held in reserve if an employee is cleared by medical officials to return to work and resumes the same job or its equivalent at the same pay (that provision doesn't apply to amputees).
The PPD award is then gradually phased out for each week the employee remains on the job. If a business subsequently fires that worker for any reason other than misconduct, the total remaining award must be paid in a lump sum.
In a nutshell, if you recover from your injury and are able to work the same basic job at the same pay, Oklahoma's workers' comp law no longer pretends otherwise. In the past, employees could get PPD payments and simultaneously return to their old jobs and paychecks. This made workers' comp less a system of financial protection for injured employees than a court-administered lottery.
The new law still requires employers to pay 100 percent of an injured worker's medical expenses; the employee must also be paid during medical recovery. In short, the system treats injured workers like injured workers. But it doesn't treat able-bodied employees like invalids. That this is controversial shows just how flawed Oklahoma's prior workers' compensation system had become, and why reform was so desperately needed.