Monday, April 22, 2013

TN Sets Tone for Other Manufacturing States

Tennessee is moving forward with a cost-conscious driven reconstruction of its workers' compensation system, with lawmakers passing big changes to the state's work comp laws making it harder to file a claim for benefits in the state.

But at least if there's a dispute it should move along much faster after July 1, 2014.

That's the date that the state's new workers' compensation court within a revamped state Division of Workers' Compensation comes on line. This, in my opinion, will greatly improve the speed at which disputes about workers' compensation move through the judicial process which means faster benefits to workers and lower expense to carriers (which in turn should lower premiums for employers).

And there may be more disputes, at least initially, to determine just what a compensable claim is.

The legislation radically alters the definition of AOE/COE by limiting compensation to injuries that arise "primarily out of and in course of employment" only if a worker can show by a preponderance of the evidence that employment contributed more than 50% to the cause of the injury.

In order to treat injured workers, doctors would have to attest to a "reasonable degree of medical certainty" that more than 50% of the need for medical treatment was caused by in injury.

Tennessee's employers have done a masterful job of deflecting liability for work-related injuries or illnesses in this legislative session.

It seems to me that the only injuries that are going to fall within the jurisdiction of workers' compensation in Tennessee are very specific, completely uncontroverted injuries (in which case maybe that special workers' compensation court isn't going to be needed all that much anyhow...).

Otherwise, I don't see too many doctors stepping up and making any attestation as to causation. They will just provide treatment to the injured worker under an alternative payment plan such as group health or applicable Affordable Care Act plan (if in place), or cash.

Bradley Jackson, director of government affairs for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Friday the 2013 session was a victory for business groups, and there is no doubt about that - particularly if a Tennessee business feels that its group health is a better bargain than workers' compensation.

The ability to deflect a claim out of the work comp arena affects not just the medical component, but also any liability for indemnity, return to work/rehabilitation requirements and "discrimination" claims as well.

But this begs the alternative - if a claim is valid (i.e. there is no dispute that there in fact is some injury) but is legally not a workers' compensation case because the worker can not show by a preponderance of the evidence that work contributed at least 50% causation - is the door open for civil liability (and attendant expenses), and will this raise the cost of other property/casualty insurance for businesses?

I don't know the answer to that, and perhaps some expert from Tennessee could opine on that issue.

Continuing the national trend to appease owners in the National Football League, the House and Senate also voted last week to approve SB 432, which was supported by the Tennessee Titans National Football League team. 

As amended by the House, the bill applies Tennessee benefits to workers injured out-of-state if they are injured in a state in which they have worked less than 14 consecutive days or 25 days a year. The bill would allow Tennessee workers assigned to another state for longer periods of time to choose the state in which they file for benefits.

These restrictions are not dissimilar to the recent restrictions passed and signed into law by Arizona, and which are pending debate in California.

Current Tennessee politics is described as dominated by Republican super majorities in both the House and Senate that helped push through the agendas of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business.

So we have to assume that the people of Tennessee are good with these new laws - they voted in the legislators who comprise this strong voting block.

And maybe the reason is that the people of Tennessee see new jobs on the horizon, as America returns to its global status as a manufacturing prowess, beating out the countries formerly considered "emerging economies" we had relied upon for this work.

Jason Zweig, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, on Friday wrote about Antoine van Agtmael, who is credited with inventing the term "emerging market" to describe, essentially, third world countries with cheap labor and good technology that could manufacture goods for export on a global basis.

Agtmael made fortunes for himself and others that invested with him by investing in companies that made stuff in emerging markets.

Now Agtmael is saying that the next big emerging market is the United States itself.

As wages and commodities increase in price, improved technology and energy independence is making it much cheaper to manufacture in the United States.

"U.S. manufacturing is becoming more competitive than you would think, and China's less," Mr. van Agtmael says in Zweig's column. "And the idea that manufacturing is old-fashioned is itself old-fashioned."

Even more pointedly:

"My belief is that markets are not efficient, but they are emotional," Mr. van Agtmael says. "They are driven by raw feelings. Why has everybody been surprised by how well the U.S. stock market has done lately? Because they're only beginning to realize the glass is half-full again instead of half-empty."

And that may be so with the state of Tennessee, which has an economy with a substantial manufacturing base.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, manufacturers in Tennessee account for almost 15 percent of the total output in the state, employing 11.4 percent of the workforce. Total output from manufacturing has ranged from $31 to $40 billion for the past several years - $36.3 billion in 2009.

In 2010 manufacturing was responsible for 92% of the state's exports.

So making stuff in Tennessee is a major component to the state's economy and we have to assume that, consequently, the changes to the state's workers' compensation laws are reflective of this reality.

But the requirement that a worker show by a preponderance of the evidence that employment contributed more than 50% to the cause of the injury seems to me like one of those emotional decisions of which van Agtmael speaks. It sounds good on paper, but after the ink dries and it is applied in real life its effect may be far from what was intended.

Tennessee may not seem like a trend setter, but for states with current, growing and/or emerging manufacturing bases to their economies, it is setting a well defined path and I believe that other states will follow its lead.

No comments:

Post a Comment