By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Nashville judge has found unconstitutional a state law that limits the amount of workers’ compensation benefits laborers living in the country illegally can receive.
The ruling stems from the case of a Guatemalan man whose left arm was severely injured when he fell and it was run over by a lawnmower.
In a ruling issued Thursday, Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins said the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the authority to set immigration policy and not the state legislature. Perkins also noted that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which struck down an Arizona anti-immigrant law, noted that the constitution gives the federal government “broad, undoubted power over immigration.”
Perkins found that the legislature, by limiting the benefits to the workers, intended to establish what amounts to a state immigration policy, but that could not trump federal law. He also said the state law, which limited the amount of money employers would potentially pay, could encourage employers to hire workers who are living in the country illegally.
“This undermines the goals of federal immigration law by providing a potential incentive for employers to circumvent the law,” the ruling said. Continue reading →
News release from governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced Abbie Hudgens will oversee the new Workers’ Compensation Division starting July 1.
Hudgens will serve a six-year term leading the revamped Workers’ Compensation Division in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development (TDLWD).
“I want to thank Abbie for taking on this new opportunity with the workers’ compensation system in Tennessee,” Haslam said. “Abbie has experience in both the public and private sectors and at the state and local levels, giving her an incredible depth of knowledge of the system. She played an integral part in shaping this reform effort, and I appreciate her willingness to serve.”
The governor’s workers’ compensation reform legislation, HB 194/SB 200, simplifies the system while allowing employees to receive benefits faster and return to work sooner, bringing increased predictability to the business environment. Hudgens, a Tennessee native, has worked with the state since 2011 when she began at TDLWD, focusing on workers’ compensation.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that the possibility of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant becoming unionized is coming up as a topic of concern among other industries the state is trying to recruit to Tennessee, reports the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. The Republican governor, who opposes the United Auto Workers’ unionization efforts, said he has “heard that from some of the other people considering Tennessee that that would be a negative in their mind if that happened in Chattanooga.”
“So,” Haslam continued, “we’ve communicated that to Volkswagen. Ultimately, like I said, we want to see them [Volkswagen] grow here.”
Meanwhile, an international labor expert said that German labor leaders backing the organizing effort in Chattanooga could influence whether a potential new model is produced in Tennessee or Mexico. Lowell Turner, a Cornell University international and comparative labor professor, said he interpreted a statement last week by a top leader in VW’s global works council to mean that “We’d like to see representation [in Chattanooga] and for it to happen before we look at expansion there.”
“If we can expand somewhere else with a more friendly environment, why expand in a place that’s hostile to unions and worker representation,” Turner said he thought was the message.
Last week, VW Group deputy works council chief Stephan Wolf threatened to block expansion in Chattanooga unless a similar labor panel is put into place at the factory.
The Chattanooga Times-Free Press has a rundown on the “increasingly pitched battle over unionizing Volkswagen’s auto assembly plant” in Southeast Tennessee. A Washington, D.C.-based group is ramping up a summer-long campaign to convince plant workers and Chattanoogans in general about what it calls “devastating” consequences for the factory, city and state should the employees unionize.
Pro-union forces, such as the Michigan-based United Auto Workers, continue to press their case for what they say is “a new model” where the workforce and management aren’t adversarial but rather vie for the same goal.
Matt Patterson, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center For Economic Freedom, said his group has put up a billboard on Highway 153, just a few miles from the VW plant, to help get its message across about the dangers of unions and the UAW.
The billboard depicts a rundown former Detroit, Mich., auto plant and states “Auto unions ATE Detroit. Next meal: Chattanooga?”
Plans are to begin efforts to educate business leaders, politicians and citizens “about the history, tactics and legacy of this powerful union,” according to a website, WorkplaceChoice.org, sponsored by the group.
Patterson said he’s talking with local tea party activists to discuss strategy in terms of distributing materials such as pamphlets.
…Ed Hunter, a Volkswagen employee and union supporter, said education efforts are ongoing to inform employees about a German-style works council labor board and “the new UAW.”
“Our group is expanding every day,” he said, adding that people see the German model as one in which “everybody is working for the same goal.”
At the VW plant, Juergen Stumpf, who has extensive experience as an employee representative in the VW Group and is considered an expert on the German works councils system, has been assigned to the Chattanooga factory.
“Mr. Stumpf is currently on assignment in Chattanooga to be an information resource for the local management and employees regarding the German model of co-determination,” said plant spokesman Scott Wilson.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After defeating several attempts by Democrats to dial back the proposal, the House on Thursday approved Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to change the way the state considers injured workers’ claims.
The chamber voted 68-24, almost entirely along party lines, to approve the bill (SB200). The Senate would have to agree to minor changes before the measure can head for the governor’s signature.
A major feature of the measure is that it would remove workers’ compensation cases from the state’s trial courts and instead create special panels appointed by the governor to hear claims and appeals.
Democrats noted that the bill would grant all the power over the system to the executive branch without input or oversight from the Legislature.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville derided the new system as a “Tennessee kangaroo court,” and offered a symbolic amendment to simply do away with the state’s workers’ compensation program altogether. It failed overwhelmingly.
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, said the changes will jumpstart workers claims, removing uncertainty from both them and their employers.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The House has approved Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to change the way the state considers injured workers’ claims after defeating several attempts by Democrats to dial back the proposal.
The chamber voted 68-24 to approve the bill. The Senate would have to agree to minor changes before the measure can head for the governor’s signature.
Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic leader, argued that the bill would give governors too much power over the workers’ compensation program in the state because the executive branch would have complete power to select judges considering injured workers’ claims and appeals.
He also argued the maximum allowable compensation under the bill levels would fall below the average benefits under the current law. But his efforts to change the bill failed.
A Tennessean story questions whether Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers compensation overhaul legislation will eliminate the “safety net” for workers hurt on the job. As an example, the story gives the example of Matt Webster, permanently disabled by a fire in the Shelbyville printing plant where he worked.
Webster got a $235,000 settlement under the current system. He would have received $57,000 under the Haslam plan. “There’s no way I could have stayed in my house with that,” the Lewisburg, Tenn., man said. “I would have pretty much lost about everything I had.”
Haslam’s proposal, now hurtling toward near-certain passage in the state legislature, won’t affect Webster because his case has already gone through the system. But it and other cases illustrate how the proposed reforms would impact workers who are hurt in the future.
Those workers would go through an administrative process designed to resolve disputes more quickly than the courts, resulting in earlier disability payouts. The payouts would become standardized — and largely not open for attorney negotiation, as they are now — at lower amounts than what workers could get under the system’s current rules.
It’s a tradeoff that reform advocates say is needed to streamline and bring more predictability to a cumbersome system. But critics say the proposal would sacrifice worker compensation and protections for the sake of expediency and saving money.
The overhaul, contained in a 68-page bill, has moved swiftly — to the chagrin of critics — through the GOP-controlled legislature. It already has cleared the Senate and is set for certain House approval on Thursday.
Since July 2011, at least seven people who had died were issued unemployment checks by the state of Tennessee, to the tune of about $12,000 in unemployment payments, reports the Tennessean in giving some details of problems in the system. But it’s not just the deceased that a state audit found were being paid benefits by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. It also found that 24 state employees were getting paid unemployment benefits — while still working for the state of Tennessee.
Those findings were among several alarming entries in a scathing audit detailing the overpayment of about $73 million in jobless benefits and other systemic problems with the state’s unemployment system.
For instance, administrative delays in the state Labor Department meant many employers were unable to challenge unemployment claims by former employees and wound up getting charged too much in unemployment premiums paid to the state.
Three of the department’s top officials, including former Commissioner Karla Davis, resigned shortly before the audit was released.
…The department, for its part, has begun trying to recoup the money and has forwarded some of the cases on to federal authorities for possible prosecution for fraud. Officials there say they also have tightened their procedures to try to prevent these problems from happening again.
“In the short time the new interim commissioner, Burns Phillips, has been here, there has a tangible shift in the work environment, not only in addressing the audit findings, but also creating an atmosphere where employees can affect change,” said Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the department. “Employers, our clients and the general public will see positive results in the coming months.”
Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system was approved 28-2 by the Senate on Monday evening and now needs only an expected favorable House floor vote to reach his desk.
The bill (SB200) makes multiple changes to current law, including directing disputes over claims by workers for on-the-job injuries from the courts to a new administrative system. Norris, sponsoring the bill for Haslam, said Tennessee is now one of just two states that still adjudicates such claims in courts and currently has higher rates for workers’ compensation insurance than neighboring states.
“I feel confident these reforms are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive but will benefit employees as well,” said Norris.
The two no votes came from Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson and Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, both lawyers.
Overbey gave the only speech in opposition, saying he approved of most changes but is “troubled” by the creation of 20 new state government positions in the new “court of workers’ compensation claims” and various other new administrative jobs in the new system. Court clerks and judges across the state are already familiar with handling claims and could continue, he said.
The senator also said that, under the bill, there is little difference between what a worker is paid if he or she returns to work and payments if he or she does not. The bill could thus reduce incentives for injured workers to return to work, he said.
Norris said most of the newly created positions will be covered by eliminating current jobs in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Some state employees in those jobs may get positions in the new system.
A few dozen people, including members of the Tennessee AFL-CIO and other labor groups, gathered on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday afternoon to express their opposition Gov. Haslam’s proposed changes to workers’ compensation, according to TNReport. The ralliers, waving signs and chanting “Save Workers’ Comp,” were joined by Democratic leaders from the state House of Representatives who address the crowd and promised to continue to oppose the reform measure, House Bill 194, sponsored by Republican Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner had strong words for the governor and GOP supermajority on the matter, calling the legislation “just wrong,” “shameful” and “immoral.” ”
This administration and this legislature have cut every tax they could cut on the wealthy and they’re paying for it on the backs of working people,” said the Old Hickory Democrat. “This workers comp bill is just one more example of that and it may be the worst of all that I have seen.”