Kansas workers’ compensation system has gone from first to worst. We can fix it.
Kansas lawmakers have passed severe limits on workers' compensation benefits, writes Jess Cooper. They can start to fix the problem in 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jeff Cooper is an attorney with the Cooper Law Office in Topeka and is chair of the workers’ compensation committee of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.
Workers’ compensation is designed to provide protection for workers injured on the job. Kansas workers and their families have less protection than most in America. The great irony is that Kansas was one of the first states to enact a workers’ compensation system in 1911. We have gone from one of the first to one of the worst in a century.
There are two specific areas the Kansas Legislature and the governor need to focus on in 2023.
Permanent total disability / cap on benefits
Kansas is one of only a few states that limits or caps benefits to permanently and totally disabled workers.
The cap is $155,000 for the rest of that worker’s life, regardless of their age, family or severity of injury. Workers’ compensation is the only remedy an injured worker or their family has against their employer. Workers in Kansas cannot sue their employer even if the employer is grossly negligent in causing the injury.
Fortunately, the number of workers who are hurt so badly they can never work again is very small. However, that small number of employees and their families are severely and adversely affected. Imagine a 32-year-old Kansan, with a family to support, limited to $155,000 for the rest of their life.
The current cap has been in place since 2011. Even in times of inflation, there is no mechanism in the law for adjustment.
Most state workers compensation laws across the nation require payment of lifetime benefits for those workers so severely injured they can never work again. Of the few states that have caps, the cap in Kansas is currently the lowest in the nation. In fact, our state ranks at or near the bottom in many categories of benefits for injured workers.
Social Security offset
Social Security is paid to retired workers after they have paid into the system for all their working years. In the year 2000, because of the aging population and increasing cost of living, the federal government created the “Senior Citizens Right to Work Act.” This change in the law allowed those Americans at full retirement age to take a job without reducing their Social Security benefits, as the monthly retirement payments often did not cover basic living expenses.
Under the current Kansas workers’ compensation laws, Kansans on Social Security do not receive the full benefit of the federal law.
If a working senior Kansan who collects Social Security retirement benefits is injured on the job, the current workers’ compensation law allows the employer or insurance company to deduct the amount the injured worker receives for Social Security against any workers’ compensation payments.
Workers’ compensation laws normally require the employer and insurance carrier to pay two-thirds of a worker’s current wages if the person is injured and not able to work temporarily. However, if this person is receiving Social Security retirement, those workers’ compensation benefits will be reduced or eliminated. Compensation normally payable due to an injury is either partially or fully eliminated because workers receive Social Security retirement that they have worked for and paid into their entire lives.
Keep in mind, the primary reason many Kansas seniors work part-time is they need the money to make ends meet. Their Social Security is not enough to live on.
But if senior citizens are injured on the job, not only can’t they earn additional income, but they aren’t entitled to any wage replacement due to the injury under current Kansas law. That law unfairly discriminates against workers who are receiving Social Security retirement without any justification.
We urge Kansans to contact their legislators and ask them to use their common sense and do the right thing.
Tell them to change the cap on permanent disability, fix the Social Security offset and protect Kansas workers and their families in 2023.
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