Don’t give ‘em any ideas

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has made no bones about his feelings for workers, particularly those who belong to the unions representing public employees. There’s little doubt that Walker will have to do any soul-searching before signing a newly passed bill that ends punitive and compensatory damages in workplace discrimination cases.

At the same time, Michigan’s Legislature has had no trouble supporting bills that also have the potential to hit workers pretty hard. Notably, Michigan lawmakers last year reformed the state’s worker compensation system in a way that could drastically limit injured worker benefits. And this year, the legislature has been focused on bills that could strike a blow to unions.

The conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy noted late last year that the pent-up demand for labor and employment reforms is still strong in the Legislature, and predicted that there is more to come this year.

So I wonder — how long will it take for this idea to blow across Lake Michigan and all the way into Lansing? We’ll see.

Will conservatives resolve to make government leaner and meaner in 2012?

Lansing Republicans are toasting the close of what was certainly a banner year for them. Lawmakers were able to blast through a wish list that had eluded them for years.

They’re high-fiving each other for having made reforms to local and municipal revenue sharing, business tax cuts, reforming K-12 education and teacher tenure, cutting the number of weeks the unemployed can collect benefits and limiting the number of months families can receive public assistance. They’ve made what some call Draconian changes to the state’s Workers’ Compensation system, and passed legislation to tax pensions.

It was a long list of pent-up wishes conservatives had wanted for years — even decades. What in the world is left for them to do?

Well, the conservative Mackinac Center’s “Michigan Capital Confidential” newsletter has a few ideas.

In today’s edition, the Center ticks off the items still left undone. Many of the initiatives have enough steam to be reintroduced next year. Among them: the repeal of prevailing wage laws, and what the Center calls “stealth unionization.” The “right to teach” bill was also tabled. It would have stopped school districts from making agreements with the Michigan Education Association to require union membership as a condition of employment. The Center suggests that while there was some support for the ideology, the bill was a poorly written attempt at political payback, and may not have enough legs to be re-introduced in 2012.

Certainly for the upcoming year, workers and employers alike will be waiting to see whose resolutions stick, and whose fall by the wayside like a “forgotten by April” gym membership.

Committee to come back from break to take up comp bill

The Senate committee on Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing will come back from their Thanksgiving holiday break to take up House Bill 5002, a bill to reform the Michigan Workers’ Compensation system.

They will meet Nov. 22, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, at 1 p.m. in rooms 402 and 403 at the Capitol building in Lansing.

The bill is strongly favored by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Manufacturers’ Association and the Michigan Self Insured Association. The bill passed along party lines — with Republicans in favor — in the House earlier this month.

The Senate is considering a substitute bill that attempts to address some of the concerns of opponents. But Democrats have voiced concerns that the bill goes too far and hurts injured workers.

House passes workers comp reform bills

The Michigan House of Representatives has passed a bill to overhaul workers’ compensation in the state. Touted by supporters as helping business get out from under unnecessarily high workers’ comp insurance costs, its critics say that it will be devastating to people hurt on the job.

We reported on the bills on Oct. 10. In that story, Southfield attorney Joel L. Alpert said that it’s a complete rewrite of workers’ comp.

He said one of the reforms he finds most troubling is a virtual wage-earning capacity that could reduce the amount of benefits paid to an injured worker, something that would leave minimum-wage workers unable to collect compensation for lost wages unless they’re totally disabled. The proposed reform would deduct the wages of a job that an injured worker could be doing, whether the worker is doing that job or not, from his or her benefits.

“So, if you’re in an accident, and you suffer a crushed hand, and it’s determined that you could do this other minimum-wage job, you would only get benefits paid on the difference between that minimum-wage job and your former wage,” Alpert said.

Michigan Radio reports:

[The bill's proponents] say a leaner and less-expensive system is still needed to make the state more employer-friendly. Representative Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford) sponsored the bill.

“We’re not talking about someone driving 50 miles looking for a lawn-mowing job. But we do ask, if you’re on work comp that if you’re able to go back even in a marginal job to get back on some earning capacity to go ahead and do it,” said Jacobsen.

State Representative Vicki Barnett (D-Farmington Hills) opposed the overhaul. She says it will reduce benefits for injured workers and force some of them to take lower-paying jobs before they are fully healed: “What we do here matters to people and to families every day. This particular bill will be hurting families, workers, and the very people we came here to protect,” said Barnett.

Democrats also say the changes are not needed because Michigan’s unemployment coverage rates have gone down in 12 of the past 16 years. They say the changes could become harder for employees to file claims or receive benefits they deserve.

Michigan House considers worker’s comp changes for construction & trucking industries

The House Labor Committee discussed changes to workers compensation laws for construction and trucking companies that could ultimately expose companies to jail time and punitive damages.

The proposed changes in HB 5962 would effect cases involving contractors and subcontractors in the trucking and construction industries. It would proscribe that a contractor is an employee of a principal unless the principal shows “to the satisfaction of the director” that:

(A) THE CONTRACTOR, ENCOMPASSING ALL PROVISIONS OF SECTION 161(1)(N), IS NOT AN EMPLOYEE.

(B) THE CONTRACTOR HAS BEEN AND WILL CONTINUE TO BE FREE FROM DIRECTION AND CONTROL OF THE PRINCIPAL, BOTH IN FACT AND PURSUANT TO THE CONTRACT, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, BETWEEN THE PARTIES.

Particularly interesting is that the penalties for misclassifying and pay benefits to a contractor employee. For knowingly violating the statute, a principal can be sent to jail for 18 months and fined $15,000 for a first offense. A second offense could land the principal in prison for up to seven years and a $30,000 fine.

Even an unintentional violation could land a principal in jail for up to six months, along with a $2,500 fine.

The bill would also give the director the authority to issue an indefinite stop-work order for a work site within 72 hours of the determination that a violation has occurred.

Contractors could also seek civil penalties against the principal outside the worker’s compensation bureau, either on their own, or as a class through a labor union.

Finally, the bill also provides a form of whistleblower protection for contractors who challenge their non-employee designation “in good faith,” creating a rebuttable presumption that their discharge was retaliatory if it was within 90 days of their filing a challenge. A principal who was found to have taken retaliatory adverse action against a person could be found liable for economic and noneconomic losses, including punitive damages.

The committee took no action on the bill during the hearing. It will hear additional testimony during its next session, which will likely be held Wednesday, May 12.

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Seven reappointed to Workers’ Compensation Board of Magistrates

Governor Jennifer Granholm has announced seven reappointments to the Workers’ Compensation Board of Magistrates.

The following were named to additional four-year terms on the board:

  • Michael T. Harris of Okemos
  • Timothy M. McAree of Rockford
  • Thomas G. Moher of Sault Ste. Marie
  • Melody A. Paige of Fenton
  • Paul M. Purcell of Saginaw
  • George J. Quist of Grand Rapids
  • Joy A. Turner of Grosse Pointe Park

All terms expire Jan. 26, 2013.

Workers’ compensation magistrates hear administrative claims for benefits and resolve disputes arising under the Workers’ Disability Compensation Act.

The board functions within the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.

Under the state constitution, the Michigan Senate has 60 days to disapprove the reappointments.