Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 16, 2020.
Approximately 30 witnesses turned out Friday to testify at a virtual hearing on public sector worker’s compensation in D.C. and the inequalities between the District’s public and private sector worker’s comp systems.
Up for discussion were two bills Ward 4 Councilmember and Government Operations Committee Chairman Brandon Todd introduced in July: the Public Sector Injured Workers’ Equality Amendment Act and the Public Sector Workers’ Compensation Permanent Total Disability Amendment Act. The first bill would subject injured D.C. public sector workers to the same rules and regulations as the private sector, and the latter bill would clarify that public sector workers are eligible for permanent relief if their injuries are serious enough, just as private sector workers are.
Worker’s compensation is an issue that typically garners little attention from legislators and labor advocates, for reasons explored last week in a longer City Paper examination of the issue. Among other things, this has meant that a series of restrictions of public sector worker’s compensation passed over the last decade has gone overlooked, including one restriction that imposes a 500-week cap on the benefits injured public sector workers receive. This 500-week cap is approaching in April 2021, and the Office of Risk Management, which oversees public sector workers’ comp, says there are 79 injured public sector workers who could be affected, meaning they could lose their benefits.
At Friday’s hearing, which ran about three hours, a handful of worker’s compensation attorneys turned out to argue that the present system denies justice to injured public sector workers, in part by deterring lawyers from representing those clients at all.
One such attorney, Steven Kaminski, argued that Todd’s bill to equalize the two systems would not only benefit workers but also assist administrative law judges who act as fact-finders during worker’s comp cases. Increased “attorney involvement would further increase the efficiency” of the system, he said.
Todd asked Kaminski for some examples of how the status quo deters attorneys from taking on public sector clients and Kaminski cited “tight deadlines that are not realistic” for injured public sector workers. For continuation of benefits, he explained, the public sector worker can be asked to produce medical records within 10 days of filing their claim. “Ten days to produce medical records is almost impossible,” Kaminski argued. “There were times even before COVID where requesting medical records could take at least 60 days, and since the pandemic occurred, my requests can go unfulfilled for six months.” These tight deadlines he argued, not only dissuade attorneys, but basically make it impossible for workers to have their claims fairly adjudicated. “It’s almost a trap where they’re set up for failure,” Kaminiski said, noting most injured public sector workers do not have any legal representation.
“Does the District government really want to have its legacy be denying equal benefits to its own employees?” asked Benjamin Douglas, an Ashcraft & Gerel attorney who represents both public and private sector claimants in D.C. “Are those the values that the District wants to convey to the world?”
Union representatives, including Andrew Washington of AFSCME District Council 20 and John Gibson of Teamsters Local 639, testified in support of the Public Sector Injured Workers’ Equality Amendment Act. “It is wrong to treat our public servants as second class citizens,” said Washington.
William Lightfoot, a former at-large D.C. Councilmember who now works as a senior trial attorney at the law firm May Lightfoot, testified that passing the comprehensive reform bill would ultimately save the government money through things like streamlined staff training and establishing compatible computer software between the public and private sector systems. Lightfoot said he personally refuses to take public sector worker’s compensation cases and believes they “are rigged.”
Marcus Goodwin, an at-large candidate for the D.C. Council whose family members work in the public sector, testified in support of passing the comprehensive reform bill. Goodwin said he did not think the bill addressing permanent-total disability went far enough.
A number of injured public sector workers turned out to testify, including a handful who spoke about their positive customer service experiences with the Office of Risk Management.
Hal Levi, an attorney who represents injured public sector workers in D.C., testified that he believes the narrower bill, which addresses only permanent-total disability, would be more appropriate for passage now, and urged the creation of a “blue ribbon panel” to study broader changes in the future. Todd asked Levi who should be on such a panel and Levi said he would be more than happy to participate, and suggested including at least private sector attorneys, public and private sector claimants, and a representative from the Office of Risk Management.
Laurie Posner, a former paramedic who injured her back and neck several times on the job, is one of the 79 workers who may lose their worker’s comp benefits in April. “The Office of Risk Management agreed that these injuries made me disabled,” she testified. “But they don’t care.”