A veteran and well-respected judge in Jefferson County has called on Alabama legislators to increase compensation for some workers severely injured on the job. Circuit Judge Scott Vowell says a benefits cap set 23 years ago “guarantees poverty for them and their families.” Alabama employees with permanent partial disabilities – serious on-the-job injuries that still allow the person to work after recovery – can receive pay of $220 a week for up to 5¾ years, depending on the level of disability. But it’s clear that $220 now buys half of what it did when the benefits cap was set in 1985. It’s inadequate, Judge Vowell wrote in a pretrial ruling in a lawsuit filed by an employee of Birmingham’s Mid-South Control Systems. Judge Vowell wrote in his order:
The trial courts see these workers leave our courtrooms week after week, without the ability to support themselves or their families. They leave our courthouses with relatively small `lump sum’ checks in their pockets. After that is spent for their necessities, who knows or cares what becomes of them?
The claims for permanent partial disability benefits should definitely be increased. Lawrence King, who represents the employee in this case, had this to say:
The $220-a-week cap is half of the federal minimum wage and below the federal poverty level. It means prolonged starvation. And while they are not totally disabled, realistically their employment opportunities are none.
The disability benefit under Alabama law hasn’t increased since 1985, even though costs for food, housing, gasoline, transportation and other necessities doubled in that period. In contrast, an employee whose on-the-job injury results in temporary or permanent total disability can receive benefits equal to two-thirds of the average weekly wage in Alabama. That payment, now about $455 a week, increases every year as the general wage index rises. Several attempts have been made in the Alabama Legislature to change the $220 cap. The latest, introduced during the 2008 legislative session, called for linking benefits for permanent partial disabilities to the average-wage index. All of the attempts thus far have failed.
I agree with Judge Vowell that the 23- year-old benefits cap “desperately” needs to be changed. The judge hit the nail on the head when he wrote:
These injured workers have no effective lobbying group to speak for them. Perhaps if the public were made more aware of the unfairness of the present system, reform could be accomplished.
A number of lawyers who represent employees in workers’ compensation litigation along with the Alabama Labor Council have tried to lobby the legislators for changes in the laws, but they are no match for the Business Council of Alabama and others who oppose them. Hopefully, that will soon change and improvements in the current laws can be brought about.
Source: Birmingham News
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