Workers’ comp opt-outs violate workers’ fundamental rights
A bill that would allow Tennessee employers to opt out of the state workers’ comp system to create their own private compensation programs has been sent to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. The bill, as Mother Jones reports, is being pushed by the powerful corporate lobbying organization ARAWC, whose members include retail giants Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, Safeway, and Whole Foods. Alternative private comp programs designed by employers are subject only to very minimum requirements and oversight, leaving workers vulnerable to abuse and neglect. The Tennessee bill would also exempt employers from having to pay for many medical necessities for their employees, including artificial limbs, hearing aids, home care, funeral expenses, or disability modifications to a home or a car for injured workers.
In Oklahoma, where a law passed last year allowing employer opt-outs, injured workers are already paying the price. In February, attorneys representing two injured workers filed a lawsuit asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to declare the state’s opt-out option unconstitutional. Michael Clingman, Director of the Oklahoma Coalition for Workers’ Rights, explains that opt-outs are particularly problematic under Oklahoma’s new law because while injured workers “have no access to the procedures...set up to protect their rights [in a state workers’ comp system]...the opt-out law also bars [their] right to sue an employer under tort laws.” While Tennessee’s law would allow employees to sue their employers, employees would be required to “prove negligence of the employer or of an agent or servant of the employer,” a bar that would be very difficult for workers to clear even if they are able to take their cases to court.