By Michael Booth
The Legislature will consider a bill this fall that could increase worker's compensation benefits to dependents after an employee's death and make it easier for workers suffering from occupational diseases, such as asbestosis, to obtain benefits.
In addition to changing the system for determining liability, the legislation also would compute benefits at 70 percent of wages for one or more dependents instead of using a graduated scale ranging from 50 percent to 70 percent, depending on the number of dependents.
Lawyers familiar with the measure, A-1927, say it is designed to assist long-time union workers who may have worked for many employers before contracting occupational diseases.
The bill has multiple sponsors and bipartisan support. The primary sponsor, Assemblyman Joseph Egan, D-Middlesex, is business manager for one of the state's biggest unions, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 456. An identical bill, S-1511, is sponsored by Senate Co-President Richard Codey, D-Essex, and Sen. Martha Bark, R-Burlington. The bills have been assigned to each house's respective labor committees for consideration.
Under the current system, responsibility for worker's compensation is limited to the employee's last employer. The legislation would permit a worker or surviving dependents to obtain compensation from any employer or employers if the worker was exposed to a dangerous substance while working there, whether or not that was the last employer.
"It applies to certain union workers coming out of union halls who may have worked for any number of people," says Michael Greenwood, chairman of the New Jersey State Bar Association's Worker's Compensation Section.
"Over a 30-year career, a union worker could have worked for a hundred different people," says Greenwood, a partner at Newark's Carpenter, Bennett & Morrissey. "This is getting a lot of attention because it eliminates possible defenses from different respondents."
A worker's past employers would not be able to argue that the petitioner did not first file a claim with his or her last employer, he adds.
Jon Gelman, of Wayne, who writes frequently on workers' compensation law, says the change is needed because occupational diseases may take decades to show up, well after the employee has left the job where the exposure took place.
"The bills allow you to pick a target," says Gelman. "It's a very good idea to solve a very terrible problem. It balances the field and provides for a more expeditious means of providing compensation."
In its current form, the legislation is opposed by the workers' compensation insurance industry.
"It's an overreaction to a perceived difficulty that doesn't exist," says Edward Palshow, the vice president for claims at New Jersey Manufacturer's Insurance Co., one of the state's largest worker's compensation carriers.
"Cases aren't being dismissed because a petitioner did not go after his last employer," he says. "There may be someone out there who can show us that there is a problem, but not one has yet. I think the system is working pretty well."
An aide to the Senate Democratic Office, A.J. Sabath, says the legislation is not likely to pass in its current form because attempts will be made to address carriers' concerns.
The state's Advisory Committee on Worker's Compensation is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the legislation, says Sabath, and is likely to recommend changes. "We're going to wait and see what their recommendations are before we attempt to move the bill," he says.
159 NJLJ 1029 (Sept. 9, 2002)