The continued lack of anything close to adequate funding for public education is one of the major disappointments of the Republican state budget proposal currently making its way through the legislature, but one of its glaring omissions is a big letdown as well.
The budget contains no raise for the state’s some 34,000 employees, who haven’t seen an overall, across-the-board salary increase since 2006 when Brad Henry was governor.
Some agencies have found money for raises in that time period, and Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troopers and some other law enforcements agencies may still be hoping for a raise this session, but it’s clear that the bulk of state employees, with some exceptions, are clearly unappreciated by the Republican-dominated political leadership.
That this has created a morale problem is a huge understatement. I know several state workers, and, though this is anecdotal, most of them believe the current political milieu at the Capitol is hostile and demeaning when it comes to their concerns. These state employees do some of the most important and demanding work in our culture for low pay within underfunded systems, and they get treated with disrespect and suspicion by the GOP leadership.
Gov. Mary Fallin has set the tone by dismissing the idea of a simple cost-of-living raise and instead calling for a study that would compare state employee salaries with salaries in the private sector with the goal of eventually creating a performance-based system for raises and adjustments. In other words, the state will spend $200,000 for what will probably be a biased report that will somehow incredibly show state employees are overpaid.
How can you compare the salary of a child welfare social worker in the field with anyone else’s salary in the private sector?
The hostility is also apparent in the GOP rhetoric of “right-sizing” government and in its efforts to cut taxes for the state’s wealthy while downplaying commitments to provide basic state services and adequate education funding.
Much of this hostility, which is happening in other Republican-dominated state governments as well, can be seen ultimately as a backlash against the nation’s first African American president and carries racist overtones. Unfortunately, Republicans on the national level have also stalemated Congress and in the process have denied President Barack Obama and Democrats any chance of providing more stimulus money to the states.
The national political tension and the Republican-dominance of state government here mean state employees must go years without cost-of-living raises while working in overly demanding situations. They forge on because for many state employees their job is a calling, a way to make a meaningful contribution to the culture here in Oklahoma.
Let’s be clear: State employees deserve raises, not a study.
I’m surprised Gov. Mary Fallin and other Republican leaders didn’t hold a big ceremony Monday as the governor signed the new workers’ compensation “reform” bill into law.
After all, the GOP has touted for weeks how Senate Bill 1062, the measure changing the state’s workers compensation system, is “historic” and, as with just about every other legislation Republicans pass, is sure to bring a stampede of regulation-escaping businesses here.
Instead, Fallin issued a short press release with the usual dose of Republican mythology. “This is an important pro-growth policy,” Fallin mentioned, “that will help us attract jobs and build a stronger and more prosperous Oklahoma.” We’ll all live happily ever after, right?
What the press release doesn’t mention, of course, are the recently released statistics about the state's workers either killed or injured on the job in 2011. The numbers, which I will get to later, aren’t good. The new workers’ compensation bill, of course, includes nothing significant to promote workplace safety as it reduces benefits for workers.
It seems to me that a civilized society would be more focused on preventing job-related injuries and deaths than making it easier for companies to escape their responsibility for maintaining unsafe work environments. Safer workplaces here and elsewhere would bring down costs for everyone, including businesses.
Workers’ compensation is a process by which injured workers are compensated for medical costs and lost work time. The process can vary state-to-state.
SB 1062 changes the Oklahoma workers' compensation process from a judicial process to an administrative process. It allows companies to opt out of the system entirely if they provide their own benefits for injured workers. It also reduces maximum benefits for temporarily and completely disabled workers from 100 percent to 70 percent of the state average weekly wages. Injured workers who make less than the weekly average will, of course, only get 70 percent of their own wages, not the state average. The highest amount a temporarily disabled worker can receive under the new system has gone down from $771 to $539.70.
Changing the system to a supposedly less adversarial administrative process will bring Oklahoma in line with most states, but it’s difficult to see it as a panacea. The opt-out measure could be hard to enforce for compliance and open the doors for businesses to provide only minimum coverage, which was set at a $2 million policy with medical costs capped at $500,000. The reduction in benefits is simply that, a reduction in benefits for workers who are seriously injured on the job.
All of this is supposedly going to reduce workers’ compensation insurance costs for businesses here. If it does, and that remains to be seen, it will be at the expense of workers. It’s simply impossible to see it otherwise. That the system here needed streamlining or structural changes is one thing, and such changes can be argued, but allowing companies to opt out of the main system and actually reducing the amount of money a seriously injured worker can receive are not so arguable for what they signify. These two changes are clearly designed to help companies at the expense of workers, some of whom do extremely dangerous jobs day after day.
Dangerous work coupled with unsafe work environments leads to deaths and injuries. In Oklahoma, 86 people were killed on the job in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s a rate of 5.5 percent for every 100,000 workers, which is higher than the national rate of 3.5 percent. In addition, 40,600 Oklahoma workers were injured on the job in 2011, the organization reports. Nationally, 4,693 workers were killed on the job in 2011, the department reports. These numbers here and across the country have been fairly stagnant since 2008.
The AFL-CIO argues that a main reason for the bleak numbers here and elsewhere is because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can’t perform needed workplace inspections because of its inadequate funding and low staff levels. Oklahoma doesn’t have a state OSHA program, but the AFL-CIO point applies here as well.
Performing workplace inspections and eliminating job-related deaths and injuries in Oklahoma should be just as an important issue as trying to help corporations reduce costs related to safety issues. That’s not going to happen in Oklahoma anytime soon under its Republican-dominated government, and so the tragedy continues.
I wonder how many Oklahoma workers injured on the job don’t file workers’ compensation claims because they feel their employer would retaliate against them by either firing them outright or limiting their career advancement?
This is a question virtually impossible to answer because of its built-in paradox—suppression equals invisibility—but any reasonable person would have to concede that it happens, especially among long-term workers with chronic injuries that have developed over many years because of repetitive physical tasks or repetitive body positioning.
Here are some questions that might go through injured workers’ minds: Will I lose my job if I file a claim? Will I be reassigned to a position that pays less money? Will I become known as someone who complains too much and thus not given raises or promoted?
But these aren’t the type of questions getting much attention in this year’s GOP legislative quest to “reform” the workers’ compensation system, which pays people injured on their jobs for lost work time and medical expenses.
What workers' compensation reform seems to mean to many Oklahoma GOP legislators is reducing the financial amount of awarded claims for on-the-job injuries and reducing an employee’s ability to file an injury claim. This, goes the logic, will reduce the amount of money any given company will have to pay for workers’ compensation insurance. Reform, under this definition, means human pain and suffering is secondary to corporate interests.
Before the right-wing co-opted the language of the progressive movement, using terms like “reform” to promote the power of the few over the many, huge strides were made in developing and protecting worker rights. The idea of workers’ compensation due to injuries dates back to the nineteenth century, and developing and sustaining workers’ rights from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1980s was most often associated with the language of progressive reform. The labor movement has since its inception pushed consistently for workplace safety. It was even a Republican, former President Richard Nixon, who signed into law the bill creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970.
In Oklahoma and other conservative states, the word “reform” now means rolling back rights and advances for workers in order to promote the interests of corporations.
A workers’ compensation measure, Senate Bill 1062, is now under negotiation in the House. Its principal purpose is to change the current workers’ compensation system from a judicial process to an administrative process, but legislators have also pushed for reducing award amounts and limiting the time period for claims.
One of the provisions, according to media reports, would reduce disability wage benefits by 30 percent. This is based on the premise that wage benefits aren’t taxed, and thus the state should only pay 70 percent of its average weekly wage rate. Other provisions, since removed from the bill, would have reduced benefits to amputees and spouses of workers killed on the job, and reduced the amount of time in which a claim could be made from 30 days to three days. There is a potential that these provisions could be restored in some form as the bill makes its way through the legislature where disagreements on it remain between the House and Senate.
Legislators are also discussing whether some companies should be allowed to opt-out of the system entirely if they provided compensation benefits on their own.
The bottom line is that no one is discussing statistics like these: In 2010, 91 workers were killed on the job in Oklahoma. In 2011, there were more than 49,000 recorded on-the-job injuries. The discussion among Republicans is mostly limited to how to help companies pay less in insurance while reducing benefits for workers.
To return to my first question, no one seems, as well, to be discussing how many on-the-job injuries go unreported, especially in a weak job market in which workers might feel fearful of losing their jobs.
It’s clear the intent of SB 1062 is to erode workers’ benefits and rights. Let’s hope it dies in a storm of legislative bickering this session.