A bill that would reduce compensation benefits available to injured workers in Oklahoma is one step closer to becoming law.
Senate Bill 1062, which would overhaul the state's workers' compensation court and replace it with an administrative system, passed the Senate 34-12 on Wednesday after more than an hour of debate. It now goes to the House.
Proponents say the 260-page bill will bring system costs and compensation benefits in line with neighboring states; opponents say it reduces employer liability and makes significant cuts to a program intended to protect workers.
At nearly a billion dollars a year, Oklahoma currently ranks sixth in the nation in terms of workers' compensation costs, said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, the bill's primary author.
“We're all about jobs out here; we're trying to provide the environment where businesses can go out and hire people,” Bingman said. “It's a culture change for Oklahoma.”
How it works
If the bill becomes law, workers' comp claims would be heard and decided by a panel of administrative law judges who are appointed by a trio of commissioners. The commissioners would be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate approval.
The bill, as approved by the Senate, would make Oklahoma only the second state to allow qualified employers to opt-out of the workers' compensation system entirely — so long as they can develop their own replacement program — and would establish a method for employee-employer disputes to be mediated outside of a courtroom.
Supporters said those changes, along with adjustments to compensation amounts, would reduce costs for employees, get injured employees back to work more quickly and make Oklahoma more competitive in attracting and maintaining businesses.
“I'd talk to people and they'd say, ‘I've got half the employees in Oklahoma that I do in Texas' — or pick any state — ‘ ... and yet my workers' comp costs are two to four times higher in Oklahoma than they are anywhere else,'” said Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, who co-authored the legislation. “The bill that stands before you right now is a result of a long, long study. It has been an issue in Oklahoma far too long.”
But critics said the proposed changes benefit employers while chipping away at workers' rights.
About 14,000 Oklahoma workers file claims at workers' compensation court each year. An analysis released Tuesday by the National Council on Compensation Insurance indicated almost 99 percent of about $145 million in explicit cost savings anticipated under the proposed changes would come by shortening deadlines for those employees to file for benefits or reductions in both benefit amounts and duration of eligibility.