The North Carolina Industrial Commission, the agency responsible for enforcing workers’ compensation law and overseeing claims, reports it has been cracking down on companies that try to evade their duty to workers and taxpayers. In the last year, the commission reports it has collected $1 million in civil fines from companies that were not properly insured. Further, some 100 employers were charged with criminal misdemeanors for willfully violating the law.
State law mandates that any company that has more than two employees has to provide workers’ compensation coverage – at no cost to the workers. It’s part of the “grand bargain” workers made with corporate America years ago when they forfeited the right to sue their employers for work injuries. In exchange, companies are supposed to keep this insurance and promptly pay out claims for medical expenses and lost wages due caused by work injuries or illnesses.
But as The News & Observer reported back in 2012, some 30,000 companies in the state that were required to purchase workers’ compensation insurance had not done so. This meant that for years, workers were losing limbs, being crushed by machines, falling off roofs and being seriously injured in car accidents – only to find out their injuries weren’t covered.
It’s the job of the commission to make sure these companies have proper coverage, but it was widely known to be lax on the issue. After the newspaper ran its in-depth series detailing what it had found upon investigation, the state auditor launched its own investigation and issued a scathing rebuke of the commission. The agency had done nothing as in 2012 alone, 11,000 companies canceled workers’ compensation insurance policies or allowed them to lapse.
Now, the commission says they are trying to get on top of the issue before more workers are hurt. Since the start of the last fiscal year in June, the agency reports it has investigated some 2,000 cases of reported lapse of proper coverage. Of those, 800 were brought into compliance. In that same time frame, 71 workers were injured in the state while employed at companies that did not have the proper insurance.
The commission said data-keeping changes make it difficult to know at this point exactly how many companies lack proper insurance.
For those workers who are injured, there may be a few options. For example, take the case of a 42-year-old worker for a Texas-based contractor installing traffic lights in Greensboro in 2014. His company was paid $660,000 by the state department of transportation for the job. While moving a 1,300-pound piece of equipment, he tore his tendon. It was only then he learned the company’s workers’ compensation insurance policy had expired a month earlier.
His attorney is trying to hold accountable the state, because it chose to do business with a company that didn’t have the legally required insurance to protect its workers. Meanwhile, the company says it is fighting with the insurer because it believes the policy was valid at the time of the worker’s injury. The worker, meanwhile, has had to relocate out-of-state, where he’s been forced to move back in with family. As he waits for the benefits to which he’s entitled, he said if it wasn’t for his family support system, “I’d be under a bridge.”
In some cases, it may be possible to hold the employer directly liable by suing them in court – something workers can’t do if the company has the proper workers’ compensation insurance. There are benefits to this, but the worker does have to prove the employer’s negligence in some way contributed to the accident.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
NC cracks down on uninsured employers, Jan. 8, 2016, By Mandy Locke and David Raynor, Raleigh News & Observer
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