"Whenever you start to talk about changing workers' comp, you're always opening a big can of worms," cautioned City Councilor Jack Henderson last week when he and fellow councilors were mulling over a vast gap in trends for workers' compensation claims between Tulsa and Oklahoma City employees.
Jack Blair, the Council's policy administrator, cited state Department of Labor statistics when he reported that Tulsa had 17.3 injury or illness cases per 100 full-time employees in 2005, as opposed to Oklahoma City's 11 cases.
That doesn't sound like too much of a difference, until one considers that Tulsa employed only 4,009 people that year, compared to Oklahoma City's 5,148.
In 2004, Tulsa reported 15.3 cases to Oklahoma City's 7.8, and each city employed 3,954 and 5,276, respectively.
"I'm not quite sure what leads to this disparity," Blair told the Council.
Blair said the highest number of claims per year typically come from the Fire Department at an average of 50 judgments per year between 1992 and 2006.
The Public Works Department is trailing close behind, though, with an average of 46 per year.
The Fire Department averaged 713 total employees, compared to Public Works' 1,471.
Blair said lost calendar days due to employee injuries are typically the equivalent of 28 full-time employees.
Councilor Cason Carter was the one who brought the issue up for discussion before his fellow councilors.
"It's time to look at workers' compensation and figure out how to decrease claims," he said.
He told UTW that the city had to do a supplemental appropriation last year of $1 million to fund increases in workers' compensation beyond what was initially projected.
"A million dollars is a lot for the city," said Carter.
The councilor brought three possible courses of action up for discussion: hiring a risk manager, bringing Tulsa's workers' comp policies inline with the private sector and requesting bids for an outside evaluation to review claims and medical bills.
"Big private sector employers do this," he said of the proposed evaluation.
An independent firm could review medical bills for errors and incorrect coding that lead to inflated expenses, in exchange for a small percentage of the savings, he said.
Carter also said, if the City of Tulsa brought its policies inline with state law, it would still be offering benefits consistent with the private sector.
Blair explained to the council that City of Tulsa pays 100 percent of an employee's salary for up to six months while he or she is on injury leave, compared to what's mandated in state statute, which only requires benefits up to 70 percent of the employee's salary, or up to 100 percent of the statewide average.
Since the 100 percent currently offered is taxed, but the 70 percent would not be, "the decrease in payments to them would be slight compared to the savings to the city," Carter said.
He also echoed a suggestion previously made by Mayor Kathy Taylor and Councilor Bill Martinson--creating a risk manager position for the city.
He said a risk manager would likely discover the reason for the disparity between Tulsa's injury cases and Oklahoma City's.
Carter's proposals for reforming the city's workers' compensation system weren't well-received by some of his colleagues.
"This administration has tried to be very fair to employees and for the Council to attack the issue without the full support of the administration would be a nightmare," Henderson said.
"Of all the things we've got to do, this is not a top priority," he added.
"I hope we're not getting into a situation where we get into 'us and them,'" cautioned Councilor Roscoe Turner. "We don't have any business stepping into something we don't have any business getting into," he said.
Deputy Mayor Tom Baker, though, said hiring a risk manager is already supported by the Mayor and is included in the recently approved budget.
"The administration does want to attack this issue because it relates to the safety of our employees," he said.
However, Baker said discussions about a risk manager "shouldn't be bound up in workers' compensation."
"We should concentrate on trying to keep down the number of injuries and in getting people recovered and back to work--I'm not worried about how much more we're going to pay them when they're off the job," concurred Henderson.
Henderson also said he didn't want future discussions on workers' compensation to turn into a "Republicans versus Democrats-thing."
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