Perhaps heeding the warning signs posted next door in Alabama, the Georgia Senate wasted little time this year in passing a bill that would raise the maximum weekly wage benefit for temporary total and partial disability.
Even some business groups supported Senate Bill 135, which passed the Senate by a vote of 51-0 this month. It was a Republican Senator who sponsored the bill, no less. The House Industry and Labor Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill today.
If approved by the House and signed by the governor, the measure would mark the first time in three years that temporary total and temporary partial disability caps have been raised, and it's the most they've been raised in decades.
“We knew that, as in Alabama, the law could be subject to court challenges if something wasn't done,” said Frank McKay, chairman of the Georgia Board of Workers' Compensation, which supports the bill.
McKay was referring to an Alabama circuit court decision in 2017 in which the judge blasted the state's paltry benefit levels and declared the workers' compensation statute unconstitutional. The case was not appealed to a higher court, so the law remains in effect.
But the court ruling jolted some Alabama lawmakers and attorneys into undertaking a major reform effort.
A special Alabama Bar Association committee spent nine months in 2018 drafting proposed legislation that would revamp the state's workers' compensation system and raise permanent partial disability, from $220 a week, the second-lowest maximum in the country.
The bill was never introduced in the Alabama Legislature this year, after a self-insurance association came out against it. The plan appears to be dead for now, said attorneys who have been involved in the process.
But in Georgia, the state's Workers' Compensation Advisory Council this year strongly urged an improvement in benefits, and major business groups, including a manufacturers' association and the state Chamber of Commerce, agreed to support it, McKay said.
"The board looked at it and our data, from a lot of sources, indicated that it would be a good thing to do for injured workers and for businesses that do business in the state," McKay said.
By Alabama standards, benefit levels in Georgia are quite generous. Permanent partial disability now pays a maximum of $575 per week, and that would jump, to $675, under SB 135. The raise would put Georgia's maximum just above the average for Southeastern states, according to a report by the Workers Compensation Research Institute.
The bill, sponsored by Georgia state Sen. Larry Walker, an insurance agent, also would raise the maximum level for temporary partial disability, from $383 to $450. It also would boost the maximum allowable death benefit for a surviving spouse with no other dependents, from $230,000 to $270,000.
In Georgia, with a Republican-controlled legislature that's not otherwise known for championing workers' rights, stakeholders in recent months also worried that the average weekly wage was outpacing benefit levels, something that could create a conflict in the law, McKay said.
The average weekly wage in Georgia for 2018 was about $1,027. State law allows an injured worker to receive two-thirds of his average wage. So, SB 135 would make the maximum about the same as two-thirds of the average wage.
Claimants' attorneys said they'll take it.
“While we would much prefer to see the maximum TTD rate indexed, as in most other states, we are glad to see this $100 per-week increase, which is the largest one-time increase,” Thomas Holder, an Atlanta claimants' attorney and president of the Workers' Injury Law and Advocacy Group, said in an email. “Injured workers really need the financial help.”
SB 135, expected to be the only significant workers' comp bill introduced in this session of the Legislature, also would end the 400-week limit on medical benefits that cover the maintenance, repair or removal of prosthetic devices, spinal cord stimulators or durable medical equipment, including eyeglasses and hearing aids.
Under current law, some workers face the possibility of having to spend their own money or utilize another insurance plan to have a prosthetic or implant repaired after eight years.
Holder said the provision would be a welcome change.
“We are one of three states in the country to have a cap on medicals, and some injured workers needed relief,” he said.
Walker could not be reached for comment Thursday.
This article is reprinted with permission from WorkCompCentral. Original article can be found here: https://ww3.workcompcentral.com/news/story/id/a2724624c67e0701cdbbe9329a7ae063472612c1