Last month the Wisconsin Worker Compensation Advisory Council (WCAC) succeeded in amending the state’s Workers Compensation (WC) law by expanding who is eligible and by increasing benefit levels.
One of the most significant changes expands who is eligible for WC benefits. Under the new rules, any injured worker who is certified by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation can now have the employer and their insurance carrier pay the reasonable costs of tuition, books, and fees required during a program of approved vocational training. Under the old rules, the eligibility criteria for reimbursement for reasonable costs were much narrower.
This change should significantly reduce the financial burden on injured workers while at the same time speeding up their return to work. Tuition costs can be substantial since training can last up to 80 weeks. Workers can attend public or private colleges or programs.
The new agreement also allows an injured worker to engage in a program of vocational retraining on a part-time basis without suffering a loss in WC benefits. This change will make it easier and more likely that workers will gain retraining after suffering an injury at work.
There will also be a modest increase in the permanent partial disability rate for new injuries. There will be an increase from current rates of $302 to $312 a week, for injuries occurring before 2013 and to $322 a week for injuries occurring after January 2013. These are cash benefits and are tax free.
On the down-side, the new plan somewhat limits benefits to workers who suffer a “permanent disfigurement” on the job. Suffering a disfiguring injury is not enough to get WC benefits. Someone must now demonstrate that their injury resulted in reduced future earning potential and they will need to show an actual wage loss due to their “disfigurement.”
The new agreement also includes a number of provisions to control the cost of the WC program to workers, employers and insurance companies. Among other things, it narrows want constitutes reasonable medical provider fees for certain medical services to injured workers, while still continuing to allow the workers their choice of medical provider.
The new system will also provide an audit of medical expenses to determine appropriate rates for providers. These audits will be reviewed by a special committee made up of representatives of labor, employers and providers.
Finally, the WCAC created a special committee to study ways to permanently fund the cost of providing regular and periodic increases in the weekly cash benefit payments to those who are the most seriously injured, especially those who are determined to be permanently and totally disabled by their work injury. This issue is a high priority by labor representatives on the WCAC.
The WCAC is made up of five labor and five management representatives and they are charged with making recommendations to the state’s WC laws to the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor. The members on the labor side include Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer of the State AFL- CIO, Ron Kent, AFSCME Retiree, Scott Redman, from Plumbers Local 75), Brad Schwanda, from the UAW, and Monica Thomas, from the Steelworkers union.
The labor representatives to the WCAC are also advised by a team of labor attorneys.
The Council has been active in one form or other for 100 years, since the inception of Wisconsin’s WC law. Every two years reforms are introduced to the Legislature after careful study, debate and review.
“In spite of the terrible political climate the Council members worked to forge a new set of worker compensation proposals that represented an informed consensus of new legal refinements to our worker compensation law,” according to Kent.
“The changes represent an advancement of worker compensation rights without undermining the rights of injured workers,” he says, even though “more work needs to be done.”
Last year, 4.4 percent of Wisconsin workers reported a non-fatal workplace injury or illness, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most dangerous jobs were in mining, manufacturing and construction industries.
Workers who have comments or ideas for improving the Wisconsin WC system can contact WCAC members at the Department of Workforce Development website under Workers Compensation Division at www.dwd.wisconsin.gov.