The era is 2014, Maine. It’s not 1775, France and England, as described in the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities, but despite this difference “[i]t was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . . .”
In 2012, under the tutelage of the LePage Administration, republican legislative members set forth to revamp the Workers’ Compensation Act for all injuries occurring after January 2013. And they did. They successfully eliminated rights that injured workers have when they are most in need of help. They limited the period of time an injured worker can report an injury to 30-days, essentially took away all rights to weekly benefits for those workers who are in most need of ongoing benefits and created an administrative appeal process that unnecessarily delays an injured worker’s rights to benefits. The changes were simply an attack on working people, not that much unlike the scene set forth in the novel, A Tale of Two Cities, where the French peasantry were demoralized by the French aristocracy. There was no reasonable or rational basis for the changes.
The changes to the Act have yet to materialize. It takes at least a year before any injury reaches the final litigation stage so the net cumulative effect caused by the changes has not materialized. Now, barely after the changes were made, the Director of the Workers’ Compensation Board claimed in the Bangor Daily News: “Injuries are down, the severity is down and the associated costs as a result have been decreased,” he wrote to the BDN in an email. “Employers are meeting their workers’ compensation obligations and injured workers are meeting theirs. Our system is working as designed and everyone benefits when that is the case.”
Yes, injuries are down, yes the severity of injuries is down, and yes, the associated costs have decreased. But, those costs were decreasing well before the Act changed. So, this begs the question, why were the changes necessary? In reality, they weren’t. It was simply an attempt to further demoralize an injured worker. To take away benefits that an injured worker desperately needs in a time of dire straits. So, yes, here we are, 2014, it is the best of times for insurance carriers. Rates are down. Down by almost 8%. Businesses will reap the benefits of the change. Maine businesses will save close to $15.2 million. $15.2 million! It is the best of times! But it is also the worst of times. The worst time for a worker to suffer a significant injury. When an injured worker suffers a significant injury, he or she will suffer, will need to find alternative means to feed themselves and their families.
When we look back on the effect of the changes, once they are fully realized, it will be no different than how Charles Dickens described 1775. It will be the best of times for Maine businesses and the worst of times for injured workers. The epoch of incredulity is alive and well in Maine, 2014.
This is a guest post by McTeague Higbee attorney and partner, Karen Bilodeau, who represents injured workers in Portland and Lewiston areas.