Senators grapple with workers’ comp legislation

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In the coming days, the Senate could vote on whether to send to Gov. Phil Bryant legislation that makes key changes to the state’s workers’ compensation law or instead call for further negotiations with the House.
Senate Insurance Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, took the unprecedented step Tuesday of holding a hearing for input from senators who said they believe the issue should go to conference where House and Senate leaders can continue to work on the bill.
Business leaders, who have lobbied extensively for the legislation, would prefer a vote to send it to the governor for his signature, though in earlier interviews Bryant also has expressed some concerns about the measure. Supporters say the intent of the legislation is to “level a playing field” that has been tilted toward workers. Opponents say the bill makes subtle but substantial changes to the state’s workers’ compensation law that will make it difficult for employees to be made whole when injured on the job.
At Tuesday’s Insurance Committee meeting, Sen. Giles Ward, R-Louisville, a key supporter, said it is the most significant bill for the business community since changes were made to the civil justice system in the early 2000s.
“My concern is if we invite conference we lose the opportunity to have meaningful legislation to try to protect the jobs creators,” Ward said.
But others, both Democrats and Republicans, told Carmichael at the committee hearing that the legislation needed to go to conference to deal with some of the complex issues.
“I would be very careful to do anything to the working people who get hurt on the job,” said Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton.
“We are not sure of what we are doing. That is dangerous.”
Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, expressed concerns about giving an employer the authority to test an injured worker for drugs without specifying which drugs might negatively impact an employee’s performance. He said many prescription drugs would not hinder an employee’s work performance.
Opponents say workers’ compensation laws are designed to provide a remedy for both parties outside of the traditional civil justice system. As a tradeoff, employees are afforded certain rights, but the legislation would diminish those rights, opponents say.
Supporters say the changes would be similar to those made in other states and are needed to hold down insurance rates for employers. If the bill goes to conference, it will face another vote in the House where it was killed by a narrow margin only to be revived a few days later by another tight vote.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com