What does it say about North Carolina that tens of thousands of N.C. businesses don’t bother buying workers’ compensation insurance, a violation of state law, and the state just let’s them get away with it – leaving employees injured on the job to suffer without the help they’re due? It says state officials and lawmakers should be ashamed, for one thing.
The current system puts a low value on justice, fairness and, most disgracefully, the welfare of N.C. workers. It’s a system that the public should not tolerate. N.C. policymakers should stop tolerating it as well.
The story in Sunday’s Observer should frighten and anger anyone who works or has worked in this state. The injured workers could have been any of us. They have been left to fend for themselves – without a paycheck and with mounting medical bills – because their employers were allowed to operate without the required workers’ compensation insurance.
It’s vexing to learn that the state Industrial Commission, empowered to oversee workers’ compensation claims, rarely enforces penalties against violators or attempts to figure out which businesses are shirking their responsibility.
We understand the challenges. Some of the companies in violation were small and struggling; others said they decided against getting the insurance to cut costs. We empathize with struggling businesses. But eliminating work protections is a poor business plan as well as illegal.
The head of the Industrial Commission’s fraud unit, which investigates cases of uninsured workers, said resources are limited so the unit focuses on collecting money for the injured rather than punishing employers. But efforts to collect money for health care can drag on for years, the News & Observer found.
The commission also has the power to fine companies but rarely does so, seeking mediation and settlements instead. The fines it does collect are a pittance. Of the 225 uninsured employer cases the unit pursued since January 2011, the unit collected $30,500 – about $135 per case.
What’s particularly galling is that N.C. legislators rewrote parts of the workers’ compensation law last session to help businesses. They cut amounts and lengths of payments due to workers to drive down the costs of the insurance. But there were no changes to address the flagrant law violators who don’t buy insurance.
Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell, who helped push the bill, expressed surprise about the number of uninsured businesses. He said the matter must be addressed. Legislators have an opportunity in this year’s short session. They should act.
Some say this is a tough problem to fix: How do you even find these lawbreakers, former commission chair Buck Lattimore asked. A start would be for the commission to enforce fines and to monitor insurance policy cancellations by the N.C. Rate Bureau. A bureau official said the bureau could come up with a list of all policies that have been cancelled but the commission has never asked it to.
Charlotte lawyer Bob Bollinger is right. He said: “The commission doesn’t seem to want to enforce its orders and use the power it has.” It must. The laissez-faire way the matter is being handled is unacceptable.
Folwell aptly notes that cheating businesses are getting an advantage over those who aren’t. Other states, including neighboring South Carolina, are doing a better job on the issue. N.C. policymakers owe it to workers here to do a better job as well.