As if the Kansas workers compensation law does not already work hardship on injured workers and their families, Kansas Secretary of Labor Lana Gordon, along with the chairwoman of the state Senate Commerce Committee Julia Lynn, want to make things materially worse. Under the provisions of SB 187, the Kansas Chamber and those of a like mindset, will unilaterally pick the judges and appeals board members in the workers compensation system. They will also hand select the appeal judges in unemployment cases.
Gordon's UI and Work Comp court-packing scheme took a big step forward this week as it was voted out of Senate Commerce on a party-line vote. The bill is likely to fly through the Senate this week.
Democrats voiced strong objections to the plan before voting against the measure that will let the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and its allies hand-pick judges who will protect their interests.
The proposed court packing scheme does not even attempt to display fairness. It is a pure political power grab that will have devastating consequences on the integrity of the workers compensation system and the unemployment system.
Currently, members of these boards are nominated by a two-member committee representing both labor and industry. The process is balanced and has worked well since 1993.
Sb 187 changes this process to establish a seven-member commission with the Chamber and its allies taking 4 seats, Lana Gordon taking another and even choosing a representative from among state employees or teachers. The Kansas AFL-CIO will have one seat to protect the interests of working Kansans.
So, best case scenario, injured workers will be appealing to judges picked by a commission with a 5-2 bias towards business and industry. Supposing those judges want to keep their jobs, how do you think they are going to be voting when a worker and their employer have a dispute?
Democrats criticized the bill for the blatant pro-business slant, rejecting Gordon's claims that the new commission's makeup would somehow balance the interests of injured workers and businesses despite gifting the Kansas Chamber and allies a majority of the appointments.
Here's some more information about the current system and how SB 187 would stack the deck against injured workers in Kansas.
The current system for the selection of the Appeals Board members for workers compensation has been in effect since 1993. Essentially, when vacancies occur, the Kansas Chamber and Kansas AFL-CIO meet and send a nominee to the secretary of labor. The appointment is for four years, and the Appeals Board members are permitted to reapply. The system worked so well that it was extended for the selection of Administrative Law Judges, or ALJs. Likewise, selection of unemployment appeal judges is balanced between the Chamber and the AFL-CIO.
The Secretary of Labor Karin Brownlee seeks to change the nominating committees from the Chamber and AFL-CIO to a seven person panel. The seven person panel consists of four members with a 'pro-business' states agenda: the Kansas Chamber, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Society for Human Resource Management, and the Kansas Self-Insurers Association. Compared to the business interests, Labor has two votes: AFL-CIO and a to-be-named employee organization. In addition, a representative of the Kansas Secretary of Labor votes.
1. THE IDEA OF A FAIR ARBITER OF DISPUTES IS TOTALLY DESTROYED. The makeup of the Committee will be perpetually controlled by the business side of the table. Judges in deciding cases will always be "looking over their shoulder." If they do not vote the way the Chamber/ insurance carriers desire, they will lose their employment. The bottom line is that the Chamber and insurance carriers will be deciding all the cases involving injured workers, and appeals to unemployment.
2. THE QUALITY OF JUDGES IN BOTH SYSTEMS WILL SUFFER. Under the proposed system, the judges will merely be political appointees. Individuals who seek to be fair arbiters, and seek to be fair to both sides, need not apply. Applicants will have a master to whom they must answer, i.e. the business agenda.
3. A SOLUTION IN SEARCH OF A PROBLEM. The current system has served the people of Kansas quite well. In fact, in the intense negotiations that occurred between labor and industry groups a year ago, the selection process for the judges was never even brought forth as a topic of discussion. All sides were well pleased.The arguments that Labor only "represents" less than 10% of the Kansas population is insulting, and not true. Any time organized Labor is able to assist injured workers with better medical care, improved benefits, less litigation, etc., those benefits accrue to all injured workers - union and nonunion. Kansas is, by law, a right-to-work state, meaning Union leadership must represent all workers, regardless of whether the worker is a dues paying Union member or not. Furthermore, the business membership of the entities named in the bill still constitues a minority of total businesses in the state.
- THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT THIS IS RAW POLITICS WITH NO SEMBLANCE OF FAIRNESS.
- WORKING FAMILIES SHOULD NOT HAVE THEIR LEGAL DISPUTES DECIDED BY JUDGES BEHOLDEN TO THE CHAMBER AND INSURANCE COMPANIES.
- THE FOX IS NOT ONLY IN THE HEN HOUSE, THE CHICKENS ARE OUTNUMBERED.
The author is a spokesman for United Steelworkers 307.