Busy Week in Missouri’s Capitol With 3 Weeks Left

April 27 – The legislature has just three weeks to resolve differences and pass several important issues.  And while the clock continues to “tick”, progress was made on several fronts this week.

The Missouri Senate passed their version of the 2013 state budget, following lengthy filibusters and unusual recesses that allowed senators to rewrite certain parts of the budget (click here for more details).  The budget has been reported to the Missouri House.  The House could simply pass the Senate versions of the bills, although I don’t believe this has happened in recent memory.  More likely, the House and Senate will appoint “conference committees” to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget bills.  Some items that were funded exactly the same in both budgets are normally excluded from future changes, although these items may be changed by special motions made in both chambers.  The budget must be approved by May 11.

The Missouri House this week passed HB 1403, a bill that would address two issues in worker’s compensation and reform the Second Injury Fund.  The bill may be used as a vehicle for compromise legislation we are developing now on all three issues.  Associated Industries of Missouri is joining other business advocacy groups in a united effort to negotiate a compromise with trial attorneys, organized labor and Governor Jay Nixon’s office.  “Employees and employers benefit from the no-fault worker’s compensation system,” said Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri.  “Beginning in 1919, Associated Industries engaged labor and trial attorneys in negotiations that led to passage of Missouri’s first worker’s compensation law in 1925.  Recently, the worker’s compensation system in Missouri has been turned on its ear by lawsuits,” McCarty continued.

Occupational diseases have always been covered by worker’s compensation insurance – that is until trial attorneys got involved.  These trial attorneys victimized employers with multimillion dollar lawsuits in civil court by claiming the 2005 revision of the worker’s compensation law was not meant to cover occupational diseases.  Trial attorneys have also been filing lawsuits against fellow employees on behalf of employees injured in workplace accidents.  At the same time, the trial attorneys have expanded coverage of lifestyle conditions and non-work related injuries that cause more to be paid from the state’s bankrupt Second Injury Fund.  The Missouri legislature passed bills earlier this session that would have corrected two of these issues (co-employee liability and occupational diseases) and Governor Nixon promptly vetoed the legislation.

The bill was also heard and approved by the Senate Committee on Small Business and Insurance, after removing the Second Injury Fund provisions.  The bill is on the Senate calendar, awaiting full Senate debate.

Governor Nixon also vetoed employer supported legislation that would have updated Missouri’s law to comply with federal standards currently in place for workplace discrimination claims.  The House this week passed a bill that addresses one part of this legislation: a law that would provide protection for whistleblowers that are notifying authorities of actual wrongdoing by their employer.  Associated Industries of Missouri continues to work hard to pass this legislation and hope Governor Nixon will sign the bill if we are successful in getting it to his desk.  Amendments added in the House would apply the new whistleblower protections to all employers except state and local government.

Both the House and Senate will soon begin wo work on bills that originated in the other chamber.  The 2012 regular legislative session ends at 6:00 p.m. on May 18.

Associated Industries of Missouri Supports “Whistle Blower” Reform

April 11 – AIM President Ray McCarty testified before a House Committee yesterday in favor of two bills that would reform protections for employees claiming “whistle blower” protection under Missouri’s employment law.

While many committee members expressed agreement with at least some components of HB 2099, a bill that reforms only the “whistle blower” statutes, vigorous discussion ensued when the committee opened testimony on SB 592, a broader bill that aligns Missouri’s discrimination laws with federal discrimination laws on the books today.  AIM and other business groups have endorsed both changes, but testified in support of the narrower bill in an attempt to reform at least the whistle blower provisions.  McCarty stressed to committee members AIM’s support of the narrower bill on whistle blower, but also explained and answered many questions regarding the discrimination provisions in SB 592.

Governor Jay Nixon vetoed HB 1219 last month.  That bill addressed both discrimination and whistle blower reforms.  It is unclear whether the Governor supports the more limited bill dealing with only the whistle blower issues.

Under current law, employees may claim whistle blower protection even if they are alerting authorities to an action by the employer that is not illegal or in violation of regulations or public policy.  The bill would clarify that protection is available to employees, but only if the company is contemplating an action that would violate the law, regulations or public policy.

The hearing on the bills will be continued.

Senate Worker’s Compensation Reform Bill Clears House Committee

February 27 – The House Workforce Development and Workplace Safety Committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Fisher, held a hearing and approved the Senate’s version of our worker’s compensation bill today by a vote of 8-4.

The bill, SB 572, sponsored by Senate Majority Floor Leader Tom Dempsey, was supported by every major employer group and was opposed by only the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and the AFL-CIO.  The bill would prevent workers from suing each other in workplace accidents and provide coverage for occupational diseases within the worker’s compensation system.

Correcting previous judicial rulings to the contrary, the bill would make it clear that workers that acquire occupational diseases – those that evolve over a long period of time – would be entitled to quick medical care and compensation for lost work time.  Opponents object because employers currently are liable to the employees for large judgments when the employee is able to prove negligence on behalf of the employer.  But much more often, we believe workers would much rather have quick access to medical care and payment for claims without having to prove fault on the part of the employer.

This system has worked well until courts recently ruled occupational diseases were not specifically mentioned as compensable “injuries” in the worker’s compensation law and, as a result, cases could proceed in civil court.  One trial attorney witness agreed the result of the bill was to restore this protectiogn for workers within the worker’s compensation system.  But trial attorneys at the hearing want to exclude toxic exposure cases from the work comp system and continue to allow civil lawsuits in those cases.  While such cases usually result in large settlements for their clients, and fat paychecks for the attorneys, civil action takes much longer and requires a higher burden of proof that the employer is guilty of negligence in causing the condition.  Workers that are not able to prove their employers were negligent are not entitled to any compensation or medical services.  Restoring the treatment of occupational diseases (including repetitive motion disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome) to be within the work comp system where they have always been, is the best choice for employees and employers.

The vote was along straight party lines, with Republican committee members supporting the bill and Democrat committee members opposing the bill.  The bill will now be referred to the House Rules Committee, then on to the House floor for debate.