Will California Intercept NFL Players Hail Mary Workers' Comp Claims?
There have been many stories in the news about current and retired National Football League players trying to claim cumulative trauma injuries under workers' compensation in the state of California, even though they never played for a team in that state. A loophole in California's more lucrative benefits program has allowed many of these players to file there simply if they played a game in the state only once. In fact, they didn't even actually have to play; they merely needed to be there, on the payroll of a team playing in the state.
This modern era gold rush has risked placing tremendous strain on an already struggling system, driving costs higher for California employers.
A bill designed to block many of these suits now clogging California's workers' comp system has passed the state Assembly with overwhelming support. The bill, AB 1309, was approved on a 61 to 4 vote. All eyes are now on the state Senate, which gets to debate the measure next. There has been aggressive lobbying by NFL players as well as other athletes, and the final outcome is not assured, but the lopsided win in the Assembly is encouraging.
Makes me think California might get this one right. They should, as the notion of an “open borders” policy for workers' compensation is ridiculous.
I don't begrudge NFL players assistance for some of the injuries they have received. In fact, the NFL, over the next couple years, will likely be a front page story in and of itself in regards to the handling and management of workplace injuries in the game of football. It is going to be very interesting to see how it all plays out. Still, the idea that employees of any company can cherry pick a state based on the best benefits they can receive turns the entire industry on its head.
This issue goes beyond the NFL and professional sports. Following the theory employed by these players, why would that resolution not be available to anyone who ever visited the state on business, and eventually developed some type of cumulative trauma injury? I was in Los Angeles for RIMS recently. I wrote blog articles while I was there. Should I someday develop a repetitive stress wrist injury, or perhaps develop back trouble from “repetitive walking”, can I go to California to get my $1,066.72 in weekly benefits, instead of Florida's lowly $816? Why not? I was there, and on the payroll of my company.
Of course that is a ridiculous concept, particularly since “repetitive walking” appears to be a condition limited to Illinois Correctional Officers. Interestingly, opponents of AB 1309 actually use that argument in the reverse, saying that the bill “unfairly singles out pro athletes but also sets a precedent that could later restrict coverage for people in other professions whose traveling to California contributed to an eventual cumulative trauma.” Opponents also claim since these players had to “pay taxes” in California (I am assuming some payroll tax on a reciprocity scheme), then they are entitled to comp benefits there. Clearly no one has explained the differences between taxes and comp premiums to them.
Workers' comp, at its core, is still a local and jurisdictional business. Premiums and benefits are often based on and influenced by local and regional economic realities. California may be thought of as a more gracious state on benefits, but it is also a ridiculously expensive place to live. Similarly, an employee living in Tennessee or Georgia may see lower benefits, but their cost of living is also significantly lower. To work in one of those states, have comp paid in that state, and then reach across the continent to raid someone else's system throws everything out of balance.
Mind you, I am not suggesting that workers' comp is that well balanced to begin with….
It will be interesting to see if the state government can complete this pass, or if they fumble in the end zone. We'll hope that they prevail, and run it in for the extra point. After all, this is one game that pro athletes should not be playing.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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