April 20, 2012

Workers stand up for their rights at the state capitol this year. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Gov. Paul LePage signed three bills this week he said will help open the door to jobs. But advocates for Maine’s workers disagree.

LD 1913 is called, An Act To Review and Restructure the Workers’ Compensation System.The bill caps benefits for almost all injured workers at 10 years, even if their injury still prevents them from returning to work. It also makes it harder for injured workers to qualify for benefits by moving the threshold to receive workers compensation benefits from 12 to18 percent disabled.

“This is among the worst affronts in a series of Republican attacks on working people this year,” said Rob Hunt,of Buxton, who serves on the Labor, Research and Economic Development Committee, where the bill was first considered. “It won’t help create a single job or get our economy back on track.”

The previous law provided a safety net of benefits for severely injured employees who must deal with permanent loss of earnings. The system prevents workers who are injured on the job from suing their employers for negligence.

“Nobody goes on workers comp to get rich,” said Rep. Anne Haskell of Portland, “After 10 years, a permanent ailment doesn’t get better.”

During the House debate Democrats also pointed out that the Maine’s Workers Compensation System has proven to work. Insurance premiums have declined 56 percent since 1993 when the system was first set-up while health insurance costs have been increasing. In 2011, premiums decreased by 7 percent. According to the annual report for the Workers Compensation Board for 2012, the frequency of claims and injuries are down.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine’s AFL-CIO at a rally for workers rights in 2011, photo by Ramona du Houx

“LD 1913 will hurt severely injured workers by placing an arbitrary cap on benefits after ten years even if they are not able to earn a living as a result of their on the job injury. This bill was written by and for the insurance companies and will be a windfall for them,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine’s AFL-CIO. “It will leave families out in the cold and it breaks the promise of the workers compensation system that workers who are hurt on the job will be taken care of. It is a shame and a disappointment that the Republicans in the Legislature pushed this bill through.”

LD 1314 which is An Act To Standardize the Definition of “Independent Contractor.” This law standardizes and clarifies the definition of an outside businesses or individuals hired to perform services for a company. The objective of the law is to apparently reduce confusion over who’s eligible for workers’ comp and unemployment but the measure also sets penalties for misclassifying workers.

“Right now, some employers wrongly misclassify their workers as independent contractors to avoid paying things like unemployment, workers compensation, or benefits. This bill contains some positive provisions, but on the whole it weakens our definition of independent contractor and we fear it will lead to increased misclassification. That’s not fair to workers or to the majority of employers who play by the rules to let some employers cheat the system,” said Schlobohm.

LD 1725 is titled: An Act To Strengthen the Unemployment Insurance Laws and Reduce Unemployment Fraud. The measure delays unemployment benefits and reduces the time frame during which a job seeker is required to widen their job search outside their occupation, wage, or geographic region, from 12 weeks to 10 weeks.

“This is the money unemployed workers are counting to pay their bills in the worst of times,” said Paul Gilbert of Jay. “We were elected to create jobs not make things harder for the unemployed.”

During the floor debate, Democrats argued the measure put a target on the backs of job seekers, rather than stamping out unemployment fraud or creating jobs. Maine would be one of only 11 states in the country that delays unemployment benefits based on having earned vacation pay.

Maine has the 5th lowest rate of unemployment fraud in the nation and the 5th healthiest unemployment trust fund in the nation.

“When you get laid-off by no fault of your own, unemployment insurance is there as a crucial safety net for you and your family. This bill weakens that safety net and will take a toll on workers who are already going through a tough time. The amendment compromise that came through at the last minute makes the bill less harmful, but at the end of the day this is still an effort to take money out of the pockets of laid off workers. Changing the vacation pay rules is unfair. Those are wages that a worker earned, and should not have anything to do with unemployment insurance benefits,” said Schlobohm.

“We want job creators to come to Maine and create not only jobs, but careers for the people of Maine. Mainers deserve to be prosperous,” said LePage before signing the legislation in a Blaine House ceremony.

For businesses who look after their employees and search for state’s that does the same these three pieces of legislation just might tell them not to come to Maine.

“These bills are attacks on working Mainers rights and security,” said Schlobohm. “They do not create a single job or move our economy forward. These attacks will not be forgotten when workers head to the ballot box in November.”