Many of us are aware that the LePage Administration together with the Republican legislative members revamped the Workers’ Compensation Act for all injuries occurring after January 2013. In doing so, they eliminated many rights that injured workers need when they are injured. For the majority of injured workers, the changes mean they will only be entitled to lost wage benefits for a limited period of time. So, even though a worker has suffered a work injury that causes long-lasting effects, prevents the worker from finding work, and causes a high level of permanent impairment, his or her rights to any benefits will arbitrarily end. Permanently.
Nobody really has to wonder who the changes benefits: employers and insurance companies. The changes certainly don’t benefit injured workers, despite what the name “Workers’ Compensation Act” may suggest. There used to be a time when the Workers’ Compensation Act actually protected injured workers. But, the legislature has slowly whittled away at workers’ rights to the point where one wonders whether the Act provides any protection at all to those who are severely injured. For these workers, their rights end after 520-weeks with essentially no recourse after this limited period. Under the Workers’ Compensation Act, these workers cannot sue their employer for negligence, they are only entitled to the stated benefits.
Florida recently had an opportunity to consider some of its changes to its Workers’ Compensation Act. As a result, a Miami trial judge concluded that the Act was “no longer an adequate exclusive replacement remedy in place of common-law tort, as required by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or by the Florida Constitution.” The judge found that the exclusivity provision of their Workers’ Compensation Act was facially unconstitutional. The prior legislative changes to the Act had essentially “decimated” the Act to the point where the Act “fails miserably” and no longer protects the health and welfare of citizens of Florida.
Here in Maine, I can’t help but wonder whether the changes to our Workers’ Compensation Act have gone so far as to eviscerate our workers’ fundamental constitutional rights as well. What once was considered a way to compensate workers for when they are injured on the job – sometimes due to the fault of their employer – has now become nothing more than a cheap band aid to a gaping wound.
We must reexamine the way this Act protects our workers. We must look at the changes made over the last few years and see if they are hurting our workers rather than healing them. And, we must stand up for Maine workers’ rights in the face of the continued attacks from our Republican lawmakers who would rather protect their relationships with big business than their own neighbors.
About the author: Karen Bilodeau is an attorney and partner at the workers’ rights law firm McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at 207-725-5581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.