The first few weeks of each Legislative session are typically slow, while each committee awaits the drafts of the bills it will consider. Most committees fill some of this time with briefings from agencies or outside groups that spend a lot of time in front of them discussing specific legislation.
I had an opportunity to observe Maine Workers’ Compensation Board Executive Director Paul Sighinolfi give his “Comp 101” talk last Thursday to the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee (LCRED, for short. No, it doesn’t roll off the tongue…). Director Sighinolfi did a fine job summarizing the long history of workers’ compensation laws in Maine, and he reminded the group that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of our first comp law.
With a mix of brand new and veteran Legislators on the Committee, it’s hard at the beginning of each session to predict the tone and direction of the questions. This year was no exception.
A freshman Representative asked a pointed question about the calculation of benefits for an injured worker. The Act dictates that the weekly benefit reflect a percentage of a worker’s average weekly wage. However, the Rep. asked if the calculation could also factor in an injured worker’s debts. The answer is no – for now – but it sparked a few follow-up questions that are worth monitoring.
In particular, the issue of the “high wage earner” generated some attention. The basic problem is this: the Act somewhat arbitrarily caps the amount of weekly benefits an injured worker can receive at $742.35. (For comparison purposes, the maximum compensation rate in Massachusetts is $1,214.99. The maximum in New Hampshire is $1,404.00.) While the cap doesn’t impact the vast majority of workers, those folks who are lucky enough to make a high wage (e.g. a 30-year welder at BIW) take a very steep pay cut for the trouble of getting severely injured at work – upwards of 50% or more.
Where is the fairness in that? Talk about being a victim of your own success. Of course, the argument against lifting the cap is the oft-cited canard: “increased costs in the system.” But, at some point what’s more important? Philosophical arguments about the right amount of total costs, or the human impact of one person’s injury?
It’s a worthy topic for a new LCRED Committee, and one I hope they pursue in the coming months.
About the author: Ben Grant is an attorney at the workers’ rights law firm, McTeague Higbee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 207-725-5581.