Md. senators reject bill to limit worker eligibility for injury pay

Labor advocates cheer bar to `unusual event' rule

March 05, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

In a move cheered by labor advocates, a state Senate panel unanimously voted down a bill yesterday that would have restricted the number of injured workers eligible for workers' compensation benefits.

The move likely ends debate for the year, although lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee said they planned to monitor compensation cases to ensure that the system can handle its load.

The bill would have required workers seeking benefits to identify an "unusual" event that led to their injury. The event would have to be beyond the normal course of their work to qualify for benefits.

The legislation could have countered a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling last summer that deemed a Howard County cafeteria worker who hurt her back while moving a soap box eligible for benefits.

Vernell Harris had been denied benefits by the school district, and a lower court upheld that decision after concluding that moving boxes was part of her job. But the appellate court ruled that there was no legal requirement that Harris show an unusual event to qualify.

The Harris case was widely viewed as expanding coverage for the state's 2.5 million workers because Maryland courts had for decades denied coverage to workers who could not point to an unusual event.

Some self-insured businesses and municipal governments, as well as one of the state's largest insurers, said legislation was needed to return to the former standard.

"I'm not convinced we are realizing any implications of Harris yet," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who chairs the committee, about the court ruling in June.

"If it is going to have a severe impact on insurance, I'm willing to do something about it," he said. "But I don't think we have enough solid information yet."

Middleton and the other panel members agreed to send a letter to the state Workers Compensation Commission, which tracks the number of cases each year, seeking a report by November.

Sen. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat who introduced the bill and several related ones, said he achieved his goal of bringing attention to the topic and setting up an official route to collect data.

He said the legislation was dead in the Senate and action on identical bills in the House was now unlikely.

The House Economic Matters Committee planned to go ahead with a hearing on the subject yesterday although no votes were planned.

Labor advocates hailed yesterday's action.

"It looks like the Harris decision will stand, which means workers won't have that arbitrary `unusual activity' rule," said Robert E. McGarrah Jr., a senior policy analyst for the AFL-CIO in Washington. "That puts Maryland in line with most other states and most insurance companies, which never had the rule."

About 28,500 cases are recorded each year by the Workers Compensation Commission, and at least one insurer did expect a big increase.

The Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, a state-chartered insurer of last resort for businesses in Maryland and responsible for about a third of the state market, expected hundreds of new cases costing an increase of $20 million annually.

"If the committee thinks a study is appropriate, then we support that," said Dennis Carroll, the fund's general counsel. "But we do think the Harris decision will increase the number of claims and awards."

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