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Mississippi weakens its already weak workers' compensation law

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By Joe Atkiins, Labor South

J. K. Morrison turned over in his grave on July 1.

A little-known part-time investigator, slight in build, who looked older than his 68 years, Morrison was a private citizen who believed Mississippi desperately needed a law to protect people who get injured on the job.

He was the chief warrior for the last 10 years of a 26-year struggle, and he shed tears when Mississippi became the last state in the nation to adopt a workers' compensation law in April 1948. "Now when I go to bed at night,” he told Mississippi columnist Bill Minor after the bill's passage, "I have the comforting feeling that I have done a good duty to somebody who will lose a leg or an arm on the job."

The clock turned back on July 1, however, when the state's newly revised workers' compensation law went into effect, putting the burden on workers to prove injuries are job-related and that they weren't drinking or taking drugs, to provide medical evidence within a strict deadline and show they had no pre-existing condition.

The new law tells corporations Mississippi "is the most job-friendly environment in America," crowed Gov. Phil Bryant during a May press conference.

Mississippi Manufacturers Association President Jay Moon proclaimed the new law actually promotes "the safety of the individual," pondering no doubt the Cheshire cat grins on the faces of his MMA membership.

J.K. Morrison would not agree. Neither would the "four horsemen," the World War II veterans in the House who, as Minor wrote in an April 11, 1948, column, fought hardest for injured workers. Two became the stuff of legend in Mississippi politics: future Gov. William Winter and famed "Whiskey Speech" author N.S. "Soggy" Sweat.

In a word, the new law "is terrible," says Jackson labor attorney Roger K. Doolittle, who commissioned a study two years ago that showed a distinct bias on the part of the state's Republican-dominated Workers' Compensation Commission in favor of employers in worker injury claims. "This law is going to create an atmosphere that will be the most litigious in the history of the workers' compensation act. … The intent is to deprive workers of access to the courts … a deprivation of due process."

Doolittle says he and other attorneys may seek an injunction that would prevent the law's enforcement until its constitutionality is determined.

Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer (in photo) agrees that "the thing is horrible" but fears an injunction may be premature given Mississippi's pro-corporate judiciary. He prefers to wait until after this year's elections to see if a more worker-friendly state Supreme Court emerges.

Waiting for a worker-friendly court in Mississippi, however, may be like Waiting for Godot. The fellow just may never show up, particularly if the deep-pocketed U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Legislative Exchange Council, and billionaire right-wingers Charles and David Koch do show up, as they've done before.

The irony is that the new law emerged out of a debate over the pro-employer bias of the current Workers' Compensation Commission, led by former Gov. Haley Barbour's hand-picked man, Liles Williams, for the past seven years. Doolittle's study prompted the bipartisan Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) itself to conduct a months-long review of the commission. Its January 2012 findings described a commission that rejected administrative law judge rulings without stating "clear, principled legal grounds" and that acted in a manner that delayed the resolution of cases by an average of nearly two months.

With the Republican takeover of the state House in the November elections and continued Republican control in the Senate and Governor's mansion, the issue turned from the commission's performance to the law itself. Under intense lobbying from the MMA and Mississippi Association of Self-Insurers, conservative legislators saw an opportunity and took it.

Not without a battle, however. The state AFL-CIO set up phone banks, pleaded unsuccessfully with House Insurance Chairman Gary Chism, R-Columbus, an insurance agent, for public hearings. After the House flipped on its earlier rejection of changes to the law, a fight actually broke out between Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, and Rep. Bennett Malone, D-Carthage. Malone was one of three Democrats who switched their votes.

Despite claims the changes establish a needed balance, the original purpose of workers' compensation law was to give workers the benefit of the doubt in injury cases in exchange for them forgoing further legal action.

July is historically the month with the most worker injuries. Statistics are hard to find in Mississippi but at least 13,000 job-related injuries take place every year and many more may go unreported. Eighty Mississippians died as a result of such injuries in 2008.

J.K. Morrison fought for 10 hard years on behalf of those workers. Is his own work now to be in vain?

(Photo of Robert Shaffer from Labor South.)

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