When a coalition of business groups led by the powerful N.C. Chamber launched an assault on workers' compensation benefits six years ago, trial lawyers and organized labor turned back the attack with a grass-roots lobbying effort.
But the controversy over the state's system for compensating workers injured on the job has been simmering ever since. And this year the business groups are taking another run at the system they love to hate with the help of a not-so-secret weapon - both the state Senate and House are controlled by Republicans for the first time in more than a century.
The fireworks already have begun.
Last Tuesday - a day before the introduction of a workers' comp bill co-sponsored by Rep. Dale Folwell, a Forsyth County Republican who is speaker pro tem - hundreds of injured workers, union members, AARP members and others descended upon the General Assembly in a show of support for the status quo.
Critics of the current system complain it's rife with abuse and gives injured workers an incentive to stay at home. They cite a study by the nonprofit Workers Compensation Research Institute that found that total costs per claim in North Carolina averaged more than $42,000, 44 percent above the median of 16 states studied.
"It has really developed over time, I think, into a system that kind of rewards people for staying out of work or avoiding coming back to work, and it kind of punishes, to a certain extent, those who come back to work," said Raleigh lawyer Bruce Hamilton, who represents insurers and employers in workers' comp cases.
Supporters of the system say employers want to push injured workers who can't perform their old jobs into unsuitable positions that pay much less and may not offer benefits such as health insurance.
They say the WCRI cost study is flawed. They go on to say that cost-per-claim is irrelevant considering that data compiled by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services shows that premiums paid by North Carolina employers for workers' comp insurance are just a tad above the national average.
They defend the workers' comp benefits available today and contend that cutting them would shift the costs from businesses to taxpayers. And they tell heart-rending stories of workers whose lives and financial well-being have been overturned by severe injuries.
Down-sizing benefits "is going to put the injured worker in a tough spot," said Jeremy Sprinkle, communications director and general operations manager of the state AFL-CIO. "Who is going to look out for that person? That person is going to have to go on public assistance of some sort."
The business lobby contends that reforming the system will improve North Carolina's ability to attract and retain employers and, ultimately, will mean more jobs.
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