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State business climate may improve at a cost to injured workers

April 25, 2003
By: David Bryan
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 321

JEFFERSON CITY - Elzie Sullivan had worked for the same company, smelting lead, for 34 years before he slipped at work and tore a tendon in his knee.

Sullivan received workers' compensation payments for the time he could not walk on his knee and for the reconstructive surgery required to repair the damage.

After several months, Sullivan's doctor recommended he return to work. Sullivan was standing on a walkway when he said a sudden pain shot through his knee sending him to the ground.

When Sullivan re-injured his knee, it ended his career. But this time, his doctor said the injury was caused partly by arthritis.

Now that he can no longer work, Sullivan lives off of workers' compensation.

But if some Missouri lawmakers have their way, the kind of coverage that Sullivan now enjoys might come to an end for workers in the future.

Now before Missouri's Senate is a House-passed bill that would restrict who is covered under workers' compensation.

Among other changes, the legislation states that an injured employee must prove work was "the dominant factor," that caused an injury; not "a significant factor."

According to his attorney, had Sullivan's injury occurred after such a bill were passed, he may not have been eligible for worker's compensation benefits.

"Under the new bill, Elzie is one of the people that gets dumped out of the system," said Mark Moreland, Sullivan's attorney.

The burden of proof would have been on Sullivan to prove that his job was the single greatest factor that caused the re-injury.

Under current law, he only had to prove work was one of many factors that could have caused it.

Sullivan said taking away benefits would have left him, and other injured workers without a source of income.

"You're just flat on your face (with) help from no one," Sullivan said. "I don't know if you starve to death or what," he said.

But supporters of the bill said businesses are citing workers' compensation costs as one of the reasons why they are leaving Missouri and going to states with a better business environment.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Labor Department, Missouri has lost nearly 78,000 jobs in the last year -- more than any other state.

Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, is handling the Senate version of the bill to restrict workers' compensation. He said the bill is intended to tighten the laws on workers' compensation so that only true job-related injuries are paid for by workers' compensation.

"Judges have expanded what is considered workers' compensation that they muddied the line between what is workers' compensation, and what is health insurance," Loudon said.

During the Senate debate Thursday, Loudon cited a court case in which a worker who is overweight and smokes received workers' compensation for a heart attack because he was able to prove that the stress from his job was one of many factors leading to the heart attack.

Businesses such as Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI) argue that high workers' compensation costs are driving up the cost of doing business in Missouri.

CFI is a freight company headquartered in Joplin, Mo. for more than fifty years. It has trucking terminals throughout North American and more than 3,000 employees.

Herb Schmidt, CFI's president, said high costs for providing workers' compensation is one of the reasons why he had considered moving his company 11 years ago to a neighboring state with lower workers' compensation costs.

Now that CFI has decided to stay in Missouri, Schmidt said, they would like to see the business climate in Missouri become more competitive with other states.

"Workers' Compensation is one area that sticks out like a sore thumb, and all we want is a level playing field," Schmidt said. "I'm all for taking care of injured workers, but I'm not for taking caring of workers who were not injured on the job," he said.

Changing workers' compensation laws, Loudon argues, would help keep businesses like CFI from leaving the state, and reduce the number of jobs being lost in Missouri.

But that idea is facing stiff opposition from organized labor.

The Missouri AFL-CIO is part of a nationwide union organization that represents more than 500,000 unions.

A spokesmen from the AFL-CIO said there is no evidence that tightening workers' compensation laws would solve the problem.

"I have not seen any evidence that they can produce that companies A B or C are leaving the state because of workers' compensation," said Herb Johnson, secretary for the Missouri AFL-CIO.

"The truth is, if you're going to make a statement like that, you should come up with several thousand businesses that have packed up and left the state," said Johnson.

The Senate ended debate of the bill Thursday before a vote could be made, but could resume debate this week. Republican legislative leaders have made the bill one of their major objectives for the session.