Workmen’s Comp disability bill approved in committee

TRENTON – The Assembly Labor Committee today released a bill that will increase the amount of workers’ compensation paid in certain cases for the loss of use of a hand or foot.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Joseph Egan, cleared along party lines with Democrats supporting and Republicans Jay Webber and Erik Peterson voting no.  Assemblyman Ron Dancer abstained.

Under A3166/S676, for example, if the degree of lost function is 25 percent or more for a hand, the award of workmen’s compensation will be calculated based on a maximum of 300 weeks for 100 percent loss of function.

Under current law, the maximum award for the loss of a hand is 245 weeks and the maximum award for the loss of a foot is 230 weeks.

Testimony on the bill divided along the lines of supporters who blamed the problem on insurers and lawyers driving up the costs and opponents who raised the issue of sharply escalating costs and protecting against those workers who would take advantage of the system.

A witness for N.J. Manufacturer’s Insurance, the state’s largest insurer of workmen’s compensation, said that while no one lacks sympathy for or can calculate the true loss for a worker, there needs to be a balance in terms of costs.

Michael Van Wagner said that in exchange for injured workers receiving full medical expense coverage, they are relieved of the burden of proving in court via lawsuit that the employer was negligent.

It is a tradeoff, he said.  “I can’t tell you how you balance this sort of thing,” he said.

He said that in 1980 the medical-expense dollar benefit for a lost hand was about $27,000; for 2012 that same loss will amount to $119,000, a fourfold increase.

Under this bill, the benefit regarding lost use of a hand will rise from $116,000 to $162,000, which he said is a steep increase.

However, attorney and Essex County carpenter Rich Margolis said the legislation will not cost business over $17 million, as its detractors argue.  He said that of the cases that are actually filed for compensation, only the most devastating injuries are involved in this legislation.

When all is said and done, many affected workers receive about $700 a week, and these are not people who are going to retire and take advantage of the system, he said.

He also argued that in New Jersey, insurers control how much is paid, what doctors a patient can see and what kind of treatment they can receive.

He presented a UPS worker who said he has been out of work over a year due to a foot injury, complicated by conflicting medical evaluations as to whether he is fit to return to work, and who said he has been forced to borrow money to pay for $1,560 a month in medical coverage.

Egan, the sponsor, said this bill is overdue for people who are injured and cannot realistically return to work.

Workmen’s Comp disability bill approved in committee