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525 WEEKS Eliot Spitzer and the death of Workers Comp in New York State

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, March 15, 2007, 06:20:45 pm

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On February 26, 2007, New York State's newly elected "pro labor" governor, real estate multimillionare Eliot Spitzer, announced his Workers Compensation "reform".

Of course, whenever the government announces it's going to "reform" a program that benefits working class people, you can bet that they intend to take money out of our class' pocket - and this case is no exception.

We'll get into the details below, but the bottom line is, injured workers will get less benefits. Specifically, permanent partially disabled workers will be stripped of their coverage and driven back into the labor force, even if they are unfit to work.

The sad thing is, New York State's labor movement signed off on this deal! And the architect of this plan is the state's newly elected Democratic governor, who the unions claim is a great "friend of labor", Eliot Spitzer.

It shouldn't be that suprising to working class New Yorkers that this deal would not be in our class' interest.

New York State, the home of Wall Street and the capital of Corporate America, has a deeply undemocratic state legislature, designed to maximize corporate influence and deaden the impact of working class public opinion.

The State Assembly and State Senate almost never have any real political debate - one good government group described them as "the most disfunctional state legislature in America"

This is largely due to the longstanding deal between the Democrats and the Republicans where the Republicans get to run the State Senate, and the Democrats get to run the Assembly.

The Democrats do not seriously try to contest State Senate elections (except in safe Democratic districts - where the Republicans run no serious opposition) and the Republicans return the favor in State Assembly races.

Once elected, the legislators rigidly follow party discipline, and vote the way their party caucuses tell them to, with no room for debate or discussion (until recently, state senators and assemblymen/women didn't even have to show up to vote - if they weren't there, they were automatically counted as voting YES on whatever bill was up for a vote!!)

All laws in New York State are decided by three wealthy White men in a locked room - the governor, State Senator Joseph Bruno (R - Saratoga & Rensselaer Counties), the speaker of the senate and Assemblyman Sheldon Silver (D - Manhattan) the speaker of the assembly.  

There was a slight personnel change on January 1 - one White millionare  - former Governor George Pataki (R) was replaced by another, richer, White male - newly elected Governor Eliot Spitzer (D), the multimillionare New York City real estate developer and former attorney general.

In the case of the workers compensation bill, two other rich guys came into the sealed chamber - New York State AFL-CIO President Denis M. Hughes and Business Council of New York President Kenneth Adams.

The primary goal in the minds of all five of these wealthy men was the same - reducing workers compensation costs for New York's businesspeople.  

This was to be done in a couple of ways.

One was to increase enforcement against New York City sweatshops and scab contractors who don't pay their workers compensation premiums.

The second was to break the power of workers compensation professionals: insurance companies, doctors and above all, attorneys - both the ones that represent workers and those who are council to the bosses.

Third was to cut workers comp benefits for injured workers.

The plan that Governor Spitzer, Senator Bruno, Assemblyman Silver, AFL-CIO President Hughes and Business Council President Adams hammered out covered all of these bases.

Above all, the cost containment agenda was achieved - New York bosses total workers comp expenses will go down - from $ 5.3 billion dollars a year to between $ 4.5 and 4.7 billion dollars a year.

The bulk of these savings will come out of the hides of permanent partially disabled workers.

The sharpest cutback is in the long term cash benefits for workers so severely injured that they can never be employed in their former trade again.

Previously, those permanent partially disabled workers got weekly workers comp cash benefits, as well as health coverage, until they reached normal retirement age.

That is no longer the case.

Under the "reform" workers with career ending injuries will still get health insurance until retirement, but their cash benefits will get cut off after a maximum of 525 weeks.

In other words, after 10 years and 5 weeks, the checks will stop coming.

Some permanent partially disabled workers will only get 225 weeks ( 4 years, 17 weeks) of payments before they get cut off.

The Workers Compensation Board will "help" these workers find another job (part of a broader WCB program to force injured workers back to work before they have been medically cleared to go back to work).

Of course, for injured construction workers (who make up a disproportionately large segment of the permanent partially disabled workforce) going back to work means taking lower paying jobs outside of their crafts.

And, for those permanent partially disabled workers who find that a life of crime is better paying than the low wage legit jobs that they would otherwise be forced to take, there is a new rule - if you go to prison, for any reason, your workers comp benefits are immediately and permanently revoked.

Even if the permament partially disabled workers get a job, they will no longer be elegible for Second Injury Fund health benefits. So, if the new boss' health insurance plan refuses to cover their pre existing condition, they'll just be out of luck.

The permanent partially disabled workers who get to keep their medical coverage will find that they'll be getting a lot less treatment. The WCB will be paying a lot less for drugs, lab tests and artificial legs and arms. This basically means the disabled workers will either pay for the care they need out of pocket - or (far more likely, considering their sharply reduced incomes) they'll have to do without.

As bad as this is, it could have been worse - the legislature was originally pushing a repeal of the "Scaffold Law", the section of the NYS Workers Compensation law that makes contractors liable for all fall injuries on jobsites.

Scaffold Law repeal would have allowed contractors to refuse to pay for workers injured by jobsite falls unless the worker could prove that the contractor deliberately caused the workers injury through negligent use of scaffolding.

Since most injuries (and almost all deaths) on construction sites are caused by falls from ladders or scaffolds, that would have screwed a lot of workers out of their benefits.

The Business Council of New York and the New York State Builders Association didn't get Scaffold Law repeal - THIS TIME!

However, the gutting of permanent partial disability benefits is enough of a rabbit punch to the stomach of construction workers and others in physically taxing blue collar jobs!

Basically, workers comp "reform" will do to permanent partially disabled workers what welfare "reform"and workfare did to long term unemployed single mothers - it will drive them into low paying sweatshop jobs, in many cases forcing them to endure below subsistance wages and benefits and very abusive working conditions.

This attack on workers benefits was sweetened with a modest cash benefit increase for temporarily disabled workers - the minimum benefit goes up from $ 40 a week to $ 100 and the maximum will be increased from $ 400 a week to $ 500 this year, $ 600 in 2009, $ 650 in 2010 - and after that the maximum benefit will be indexed to two thirds the average weekly wage.

That was basically the only gain that New York workers got out of Spitzer's workers comp "reform". And that "gain" was tempered by sharply reduced medical coverage.

The rest of the benefits were strictly for the bosses.

One major focus of the "reforms" is making sweatshop bosses in New York City pay their share of the workers comp costs. In particular, this was aimed at scab contractors in the New York City construction industry - who typically pay their workers in cash off the books with no benefits of any kind withheld.

Since 70% of the contractors in New York City currently fall into that catagory (that is, off the books scab outfits who don't pay taxes) this has put a major drain on the dwindling number of contractors who pay into the system.

Now the Workers Compensation Board's anti fraud unit inspectors will have the power to raid jobsites and stop work until the bosses ante up their workers comp premiums.

And the scab contractors will no longer be able to use the dodge that their off the books cash workers are "independent contractors" - they will still have to pay.

Of course, those anti fraud unit inspectors can, and undoubtedly will, also be unleashed on injured workers, in particular the permanent partially disabled workers, to find any reason they can to cut off their coverage.

Injured employees of the City of New York already know how that works. They have to deal with investigators following them around with video cameras, trying to catch them going swimming, or slashing the tires on their car and videotaping them changing their tires, to "prove" that they are not really injured and their benefits should get cut.

Now all workers in the state will be subject to that kind of entrapment and abuse!!!

Along with the police harassment from the inspectors, disabled workers will also be "helped" to find new jobs by expanded reemployment programs, designed to force them back into the labor force long before their bodies are ready to go back to work.

Also, the role of insurance companies, doctors and lawyers will be sharply reduced. The local Workers Compensation Board administrative law judges will be required to implement something called a "Rocket Docket" to limit the ability of attorneys to get continuences on cases.

On the one hand, this would limit the power of the lawyers for insurance companies and employers to delay workers benefits for months and even years. But it would also limit the power of injured workers lawyers to appeal decisions that deny benefits for injured workers.

Also, the present system of dueling medical testimony - the workers doctor saying that they're hurt and the doctors of the boss and the insurance company saying they're OK - would be abolished, in place of so called "objective medical standards".

This is a big gain for the bosses - instead of them having to pay a lot of money to insurance carriers, lawyers and doctors to screw workers out of their benefits, the WCB will do that for them - at no cost!!! And the workers will not be able to fight back, since their lawyers will have a much more limited ability to appeal WCB decisions!!!

This is all very typical of Eliot Spitzer's style of politics. The self proclaimed "Sheriff of Wall Street" has made his political career using the goverment to police the conduct of individual businesspeople to benefit the capitalist class as a whole.

Some labor activists foolishly and wrongly see this as "pro labor".

Far from it - Spitzer, who himself is a member of the capitalist class (his family are major players in Manhattan real estate and he personally owns several major hirise buildings in Midtown Manhattan) views government as an instrument to regulate the behavior of individual capitalists to benefit the general interest of the capitalist class as a whole.

Spitzer also feels that another major goal of government is to discipline the working class, to force us to subordinate our needs as a class to the collective needs of the business community.

Minority union carpenters and teamsters at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center got to see that side of Eliot Spitzer up close and personal when they tried to sue the State of New York for race and sex discrimination. Spitzer, then the state attorney general, refused to compromise with the workers lawyers, and instead unleashed the full power of the State of New York against the workers who dared to sue. Spitzer had 52 carpenters and teamsters arrested on trumped up "fraud" charges, to break their attempt to resist state sanctioned discrimination at the convention center.

Some "friend of labor"!!!

Basically, Spitzer sees goverment as an instrument to discipline both bosses and workers and force them to carry out the general needs of the business community as a whole.

This is essentially the same view of government held by men like Juan Peron, General Augusto Pinochet and Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Another guy with similar views on government compared the capitalists to a bunch of twigs - individually, they bend and twist in the wind and are very weak. But if a strong man binds them together, they become a very strong and virtually unbreakable staff - in Latin, a fasces.

That man was one Benito Mussolini and he had a name for his attempt to unify and discipline the business community of his country by unifiying the individual corporate twigs into one strong staff, and to forcibly subordinate the working class to that strong corporate staff - he called it fascism.

Far from being a "friend of labor" that's basically what Spitzer is about!

And Corporate America knows it.

When Spitzer ran for governor in 2006, he had a $ 29 million dollar war chest to finance his campaign - the most expensive gubenitorial campaign in the history of the United States!

Although just about every union in the state gave Spitzer money - from the NYC District Council of Carpenters to the United Federation of Teachers, from the Patrolmens Benevolent Association to the United Auto Workers, from the United Steelworkers to the Uniformed Sanitationmens Association - the great bulk of Spitzer's contributions came from Wall Street financiers.

The financiers of Lower Manhattan opened up their wallets - both as individuals and corporations, the moneymen of the Stock Exchange gave massive donations to Spitzer, in most cases, they gave the maximum individual and corporate contributions allowed by law.

The Wall Streeters knew that Spitzer is one of their class brothers, and he would look out for their interests in Albany.

And his election was their triumph - for the first time since Nelson Rockefeller stepped down in 1974, the Wall Street financiers would have one of their own in the statehouse!

After 32 years of having to rely on brought and paid for clubhouse political hacks like Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, the downtown financiers would again have a governor who would look out for their interests like they were his own (because they basically were!)

Unfortunately, despite Spitzer's clear pro corprate and anti working class agenda, the labor movement in New York State is marching lock step behind him!!

All of those attacks on permanent partially disabled workers that I outlined above were approved by the New York State AFL-CIO!! Since Denis Hughes was in the room when these attacks were planned, you can really say that the AFL-CIO is a co-author of this gutting of injured workers rights!!!

And the State AFL-CIO chieftan doesn't deny it, he's a proud co-author of workers comp "reform"!!!

Even before the newspapers had their stories written, Denis Hughes emailed out a press release, bragging of the State AFL-CIO's role in drafting this attack on workers which he, with utter dishonesty, proclaimed as a "victory" for New York workers!!

This workers comp "reform" should be a wakeup call to the workers of New York State - we cannot rely on the so called "friends of labor" of the Democratic Party to defend our interests, because the Democrats, just like the Republicans, represent the interests of our bosses and are totally opposed to our needs!

- commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER

originally published on Friday, March 2, 2007