South Carolina Delivers a Blow to Injured Workers Seeking Workers' Compensation
By Gerri Elder
On June 25, 2007, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford signed a workers' compensation reform bill that now makes it harder than ever for injured workers to receive benefits from workers' compensation insurance.
Governor Sanford had made workers' compensation reform his main priority this year and business groups across the state pushed hard for the changes.
Businesses in South Carolina call the sweeping reform an improvement. The changes will mean lowered insurance premiums for business owners, which they say will increase profits and attract more businesses to South Carolina. This is what the South Carolina Governor had in mind when he pushed for the reform, making South Carolina more business friendly.
But what about the workers? The changes will impact injured workers in several ways.
First of all, the Second Injury Fund was abolished with the new legislation. Employers have paid into this fund since it was established after World War II. The fund was created to help pay benefits for workers who came to a job with preexisting injuries. When a worker who had been previously injured suffered a new injury on the job, this fund would pay the benefits for the new injury. This gave businesses absolutely no reason not to hire workers who had previous workers' compensation claims.
Actually, from an insurance standpoint, it was better for them to hire workers who did have preexisting injuries, because in the event the worker suffered an injury at work, the employer's workers' compensation insurance would be bypassed entirely and benefits would come from the Second Injury Fund.
The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers, so the Second Injury Fund was basically just a perk and an incentive for employers to hire workers with a previous injury. So lawmakers considered the Second Injury Fund to be unnecessary, and under the new laws it will be phased out by 2013. The Fund will no longer accept reimbursement claims after July 1, 2008. We will then see how employers really feel about hiring workers who have previously been injured.
The South Carolina workers' compensation reform has also targeted workers' compensation claims involving stress, mental illnesses and injuries. Because these types of injuries were always seen as subjective and vulnerable to people who "work the system", the new law clamped down on these types of claims. Now workers suffering injuries or illness relating to stress or mental conditions must prove that the injury or illness was caused by extraordinary conditions at the workplace. Previously, such claims did not require medical documentation and expert testimony, but under the new laws medical proof will be necessary.
The workers' compensation reform also dealt a huge blow to those with back injuries. Under the old workers' compensation laws, a worker suffering over 50% impairment due to a back injury was considered to have a permanent disability. Under the new law employers may challenge the assumption that a worker with such a back injury is permanently disabled.
Under South Carolina's workers' compensation laws an injured worker can only collect compensation for medical bills, time missed from work and compensation for any permanent disability as a result of the accident or injury. Unfortunately the workers' compensation reform will now make it harder than ever for workers to receive even the limited benefits that were available to them under the old laws.
The workers' compensation reform is fantastic and profitable for businesses in South Carolina, but did lawmakers even stop to consider the impact these changes will have on the South Carolina workforce? The new laws would indicate not. Business and profits are apparently top priority in South Carolina.