Politics & Government

Police and firefighters flex political muscle as workers’ comp bill stalls

For more than a week, State Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, has been fielding calls and emails from first-responders asking him why he sponsored a bill that would strip them of their workers’ compensation benefits.

“Who in their right mind would try to take away the benefits from someone who is no longer able to work?” Koenig said. “That’s absurd.”

Koenig’s constituents are calling about House Bill 296, a proposal Koenig says will “modernize” Kentucky’s workers’ compensation law. The bill won approval in the House on Feb. 22 but has been awaiting action in a Senate committee ever since, despite being endorsed by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents say HB 296 would roll back workers’ benefits at a time when workers’ compensation costs have already declined dramatically for businesses and insurers.

“I just don’t understand the attack on the blue collar worker or the public safety worker in Kentucky,” said Capt. Chris Bartley, who represents Lexington’s firefighter union.

Labor unions have a long list of problems with the bill, but the largest battle has focused on a provision that would allow employers to stop paying benefits after 15 years for partial disabilities that are permanent. The bill would exempt some injuries, such as loss of a limb, hearing, eye or teeth, from the 15-year cap, but opponents argue that it isn’t enough.

We need to have the confidence to know that if we are injured in the line of duty, we will be taken care of.

Nicolai Jilek, legislative representative for the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police

“We need to have the confidence to know that if we are injured in the line of duty, we will be taken care of,” said Nicolai Jilek, the legislative representative for the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police.

When explaining why the bill could be harmful to workers, Jilek uses the example of his police beat partner, whose cruiser was hit by a drunken driver. The accident resulted in a back injury that requires medical attention for his spinal discs every few years.

“That’s not a total disability; that’s a partial disability,” Jilek said, arguing that such injuries won’t be covered beyond 15 years under Koenig’s proposal.

Koenig uses a different example when defending the bill. He conjures the image of a firefighter who breaks his leg falling through a roof. The firefighter gets workers’ compensation insurance as his leg heals, but then “30 years later, you could have a leg problem. The doctor tells you to go back and get your knee surgery on workers’ comp.”

In addition, setting the 15-year time limit could save employers about 10 percent on their insurance bills.

“When every single injury is eligible for lifetime benefits, the actuaries have to account for it,” Koenig said.

‘What’s in it for injured workers?’

Last year, Koenig was part of a bipartisan Workers’ Compensation Task Force that considered the desires of employers and workers but eventually decided that Kentucky’s workers’ compensation law functions pretty well: Costs have gone down for employers, and profits have gone up for insurers.

But with a new Republican majority in the Kentucky House of Representatives that is more open to business-friendly legislation, Koenig took some of the changes desired by businesses and wrote HB 296.

The bill contains a lot. It would prohibit most people from collecting benefits at age 70, shifting the financial burden of covering them from the workers’ compensation system to Medicare; prevent workers from making claims on injuries caused by repeated manual labor five years after they stopped doing the work; set treatment guidelines for workers’ compensation claims; set a cap of 15 years on payments for partial disabilities that are permanent; and bring the law into compliance with various court rulings.

Organized labor wasn’t having it. They sent their lobbyist, Bill Londrigan, with two workers’ compensation lawyers, to challenge the bill.

“You’ve helped attorneys, you’ve helped the business side, you’ve certainly helped the insurance companies, they’re gonna get a windfall, and you’ve even impacted the state budget,” former lawmaker Bob Heleringer, a lobbyist for the Kentucky Injured Workers’ Association, told lawmakers in a committee hearing. “That’s what you tell people back home, and then they’re going to say ‘OK, well, what’s in it for injured workers? What’s offsetting that?’ And the answer, at least as it’s currently written, is nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

So Koenig compromised. He added an amendment to boost the maximum benefits for people receiving workers’ compensation from 100 percent to 110 percent of the state average weekly wage (less than the 130 percent laborers asked for) and another to resolve an issue that lawyers said would prevent them from making money on workers’ compensation claims.

Then, as often occurs in politics, things got messy.

“We appreciate those changes,” said Steve Barger, a Frankfort lobbyist who represents the Fraternal Order of Police and the Kentucky Justice Association. “But it doesn’t make up for the other changes in the bill that we find unfair.”

Barger and other opponents of the bill got Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson, to sponsor an amendment that altered the bill dramatically in favor of workers. It failed by five votes.

“As far as I’m concerned, that was bad faith,” Koenig said about Barger finding a different sponsor for the amendment after he and Koenig had negotiated.

Labor strikes back

Organized labor wasn’t done. The FOP holds a lot more sway in Frankfort these days than the AFL-CIO, which was steamrolled in January when the General Assembly passed several anti-union bills.

FOP members have bombarded Koenig with calls and emails, they’ve written op-eds, and their legislative representative even made a YouTube video about it.

“We addressed their issues in the House as much as we could,” Koenig said. “And now they’re taking the good name of the FOP.”

Koenig said he had heard no opposition from the FOP as the bill moved through the House, naming Barger as the reason the FOP suddenly joined the debate.

The FOP, though, cited the large volume of legislation under consideration this year for its tardy opposition to the bill.

“Of all the things that were coming down the pike, it slipped our radar until after it passed the House,” Jilek said.

House Speaker Jeff Hoover has HB 296 on his list of bills that lawmakers might pass in their final two days, and Koenig said he remains hopeful that it will pass.

Koenig hasn’t met with the Senate during the recess to discuss the bill, but negotiations resumed this week between the Senate and the FOP.

However, neither the FOP nor Koenig seems willing to budge on the 15-year cap for permanent partial-disability payments.

“We are going to do everything we can to stop it in its current form,” Barger said.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics