Last month, the North Carolina's Legislative Services Commission's nine Republican members launched a study into the state's workers' compensation program, and the results are due to be released late next month.
Our Charlotte workers' compensation lawyers know that what makes this of particular concern is that the members, set on reducing government spending, could ultimately use those findings as a way to cut state worker wages and slash critical benefits to those who have suffered on-the-job injuries.
Let's be clear here: We're not talking about milking the system, though that's the kind of language some conservative leaders use when talking about reductions. What we're talking about is workers who were gainfully employed, earning an honest wage to provide for their families and who have suffered an injury during the course of that work. In many cases, the factors that contributed to those injuries were beyond the control of the employee, having more to do with a lack of manager oversight or even employer negligence.
State workers are expressing significant concern given the fact that North Carolina is considered to be among the least union-friendly states in the country. The UE Local 150 has about 3,000 members (accounting for about 3 percent of state workers) and the State Employees Association of North Carolina has about 55,000 workers. Still, we are one of only two states in the entire country to prohibit collective bargaining for public workers. What this means is that workers are unlikely to get much say at all in the final decision.
Even so, some union leaders are expressing an even greater concern about the possible elimination of longevity pay in favor of a merit-based system. In theory, it sounds like a good idea: workers are paid based on their performance rather than the amount of time they've been employed. The problem historically is that such a system has led to well-documented instances of racism and favoritism.
Such measures could ultimately lead to a so-called "brain drain" in which the best young qualified workers seek state government work outside of North Carolina or in the private sector. Already, a report released in the spring of last year showed that state employees hadn't had cost-of-living adjustments for the last five years. They did receive a 6.75 percent wage during that time frame, but that failed to keep the pace with the 11 percent spike in the cost of living.
This only makes it harder when workers do suffer a work-related injury. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, they haven't had as much of an opportunity to set aside an adequate savings to prepare for emergencies. That means when an injury occurs, workers' compensation is even more important.
Particularly in fields where occupational hazards are already an issue, this is inviting tragedy.