Patrick J. O'Connor, president of the Injured Workers Association of Utah, is an optimist.
His 9-month-old organization supported 14 injured worker rehabilitation-related bills in the last legislature and got blanked. Nevertheless, O'Connor believes the foundation was laid for the next legislative session because "now they know who we are."Although of his association members who lobbied legislators during the session didn't receive any money and paid their own expenses, O'Connor said, "We will be back."
Five of the 14 bills made it out of committee on favorable votes, but that's as far as it went. The pro-business lobby during the session was active and beat back the association's efforts.
Because some of the bills didn't carry a fiscal impact, O'Connor can't understand why they wouldn't pass. In one instance, figures from California and Florida were applied to Utah law and O'Connor believes that was ridiculous.
"We needed more time to debate the fiscal notes analysts attached to some of the bills," a disgruntled O'Connor said, adding that people are an important resource and in 21/2 years employers get back the money they spend on rehabilitation.
O'Connor said injured workers who can be helped by rehabilitation should be identified early to get them back to work quickly.
One of the main reasons O'Connor's association pushed for mandatory rehabilitation for injured workers was to eliminate problems faced when a doctor declares a person's condition stabilized and the time rehabilitation begins.
When a person's condition stabilizes, O'Connor says, wage supplement money is cut off and rehabilitation starts. "What does a person do with several children and little money coming in? Many of them have to go on welfare. People shouldn't have to decide between eating and going to school," he said.
To provide an injured worker with information on how to deal with government agencies, O'Connor believes injury report forms should contain enough information so injured workers receive their money quickly. When injured workers don't know how do deal with the workmen's compensation system, they hire attorneys and their fees are deducted from any awards made.
That situation was the subject of another bill O'Connor's association supported in the Legislature. SB147 would have prohibited attorney fees from being deducted from a supplemental workmen's compensation award.
O'Connor presented some figures in support of the bill. For example, a person earning $1,828 per month before an injury suddenly is down to $1,425 based on the 66.67 percent allowed by law during the total disability period.
Then, if 20 percent is deducted for attorney fees, that person's monthly income is reduced to $1,140. Figuring the person's financial obligations (house payment, utility payments and miscellaneous expenses) remain the same, O'Connor said drastic adjustments must be made.
"None of us want a handout. We just need financial help if retraining is required," he said.