State worker injuries on rise

But account to pay claims depleted to help balance budget

July 04, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Maryland corrections officers, juvenile services counselors and other public workers are getting hurt on the job in record numbers, documents show, straining state finances at a time when a savings fund to pay for workplace injuries has been depleted to help balance the budget.

The number of state workers filing claims for on-the-job injuries has increased by more than a fifth at some agencies over the three years ending June, 30, 2005 - although injury claims were down at others. Overall, state government workers filed 8,147 injury claims in fiscal year 2005, up from 7,894 for fiscal 2003, records show.

Claims grew rapidly in the state prison system, which accounts for about one out of every four injuries reported by workers. Correctional officers have long complained of forced overtime and unsafe staffing levels.

"I think fatigue is a part of it," Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 92, said of the growing number of injuries in correctional and juvenile facilities.

Workplace injuries were also up at juvenile detention centers, where administrators have had trouble recruiting staff. Juvenile services counselors complain of being forced to work back-to-back double shifts that leave them exhausted.

The Ehrlich administration says it is trying to combat the trend by improving safety training.

Administration officials acknowledge that the state has less money to pay for workplace injuries since the governor transferred $75 million from a savings fund to pay for general state operations during a time of fiscal crisis. They say they are replacing money in the workplace injury reserve fund as circumstances allow and note that former Gov. Parris N. Glendening also tapped the injury account to help balance the general fund budget.

Work-related injuries among the state government's nearly 100,000-member work force, which includes university system employees, range from minor cuts, strains and sprains to catastrophic, disabling or even fatal injuries, state officials say.

They come at a heavy cost to Maryland taxpayers, who ultimately pick up the tab for medical expenses and lost wages.

According to information obtained from the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, a quasi-public agency that administers workers' compensation programs for the state government, the costs of state workplace injuries have risen sharply - from $37.7 million in fiscal 2003 to a projected $49.7 million for the fiscal year that ended Friday.

Payments on workers' compensation claims administered by the IWIF are just a part of what the state pays to cover the costs of workplace injuries.

If administrators approve, a state worker who is sidelined by an injury can draw two-thirds of his or her salary for up to a year as "accident leave." The money comes from state agency budgets and is not part of the workers' compensation program.

Payroll reports show that injured state workers took 279,092 hours in accident leave in 2002, at a cost to taxpayers of $3.3 million. In 2005, state workers claimed 340,523 hours in accident leave at a cost of $4.2 million.

The accident leave data come from the state's central payroll bureau, which covers most state agencies but does not include judiciary or university system employees.

How Maryland's safety record stacks up against other states is difficult to determine. Officials with the Workers Compensation Research Institute said that state governments use widely different systems to handle workplace injuries, making it hard to compare claims and costs.

Maryland's workplace injuries and costs are up at a time when the state has less money than it anticipates needing to pay such claims.

At the end of fiscal 2002, the state had $97.5 million in a reserve account at the IWIF; by the end of the 2005 budget year, there was $4.3 million in the account.

Meanwhile, the projected future cost for workers' compensation claims more than doubled during that period, from $88.4 million to $229.5 million, according to legislative budget analysts.

The state's secretary of budget and management, Cecilia Januszkiewicz, said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "inherited a huge budget deficit" when he took office in January 2003 and needed to transfer $75 million from the injury reserve fund to cover general operating expenses. The money shift was approved by the General Assembly.

"The question was do you cut funding for schools, hospitals and prisons or do you take money out of a savings account that you don't need immediately," she said.

The governor did not restore any reserve money until last fiscal year, when he put $10 million back into the fund. An additional $10 million went into the account for the fiscal year that began July 1.

"Our current plan is to try to put additional sums in as we can," Januszkiewicz said. "We have appropriated sufficient funds to pay current claims, and we intend to continue doing that."

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