By Bill Kidd, Central Bureau Chief
Two of most powerful members of the Oklahoma Legislature have agreed to carry legislation to give employers an alternative to workersâ€™ compensation to protect injured workers â€“ and to reduce costs to businesses.
Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, will take the lead on Senate Bill 1378, the â€œOklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act.â€
The legislation is backed by the Oklahoma Injury Benefit Coalition (OIBC), representing employers who want an option to state-mandated workersâ€™ compensation insurance.
The act would give employers the option of establishing and managing a benefit plan that complies with the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) instead of purchasing workersâ€™ compensation insurance.
Oklahoma state law currently requires employers to purchase workersâ€™ compensation insurance and to operate their occupational injury programs within the guidelines set by the Oklahoma Workersâ€™ Compensation Act and rulings of the Oklahoma Workersâ€™ Compensation Court.
SB 1378 states that its purpose is to provide â€œa fair and balanced alternativeâ€ to workersâ€™ compensation insurance that provides workers indemnity and medical benefits, helps employers control costs and assists the state in â€œattraction and retention of new employers.â€
Becky Robinson, risk manager for craft supply chain Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City, chairs the coalition.
“We know that the option works, because Texas has been using a similar tool for years with tremendous success,â€ she said.
Texas is the only state in the union that does not generally require employers to carry workersâ€™ compensation insurance. However, some employers who choose to become â€œnonsubscribersâ€ offer alternative plans, frequently under ERISA, to provide income and medical benefits to employees â€“ although they are not required to do so.
Under the proposed legislation, an employer would be required to have an ERISA plan with specified benefits to become a â€œqualified employer.â€
A qualified employerâ€™s liability under the benefitÂ plan would be exclusive for occupational injuries â€œin all cases except death,â€ the bill states.
SB 1378 would allow an employer to choose to be exempt from the Workersâ€™ Compensation Code only if the employer has 50 or more employees, had claims greater than $50,000 in at least one of three preceding years, and establishes an alternative benefit plan that qualifies under the legislation. The bill also states only employers with an experience modification greater than 1.0 would be allowed to participate, but it is was not clear late Friday if this was a drafting error.
That benefit plan must provide for 100% of medical expenses and pay 80% of pre-injury income for temporary inability to work — for up 156 weeks — and 80% of pre-injury income for permanent inability to work for the later of 15 years or eligibility for 100% of Social Security retirement benefits.
Nathan Atkins, communications director for Sen. Bingman, said Friday that some provisions of the legislation could be changed during the legislative process, but the senator intends to build on changes made last year in the workersâ€™ compensation system by SB 878.
Tulsa attorney Steve Edwards, legislative consultant for the employer coalition, said the group is pleased to have Bingman and Steele in charge of the legislation and expects the measure to have wide support in the Legislature.
Edwards said the Oklahoma State Chamber is supporting the measure, and OIBC is working to recruit other business organizations.
Jim Curry, president and secretary-treasurer of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, said he had not read the bill and could not comment.Â Â
Robinson said many companies in the coalition also operate in Texas, and have witnessed firsthand how such an option can provide better health outcomes for workers and reduce costs to businesses. The option should be â€œa game-changerâ€ for Oklahoma,â€ she said.
The Oklahoma Legislature will convene Feb. 6.