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The Tennessee Option: Huge Retailers Back Brutal Lobby that Wants to Destroy Workers’ Comp

ARAWC's promo images feature workers who have to pray to God they don't get hurt.

ARAWC’s promo images feature workers who have to pray to God they don’t get hurt.

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For the past year, the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation (ARAWC) has sought to gut workers’ compensation laws at the state level on behalf of their corporate donors.  The multi-state lobbying effort has already passed model legislation in Tennessee. Richard Evans, the group’s executive director, says ARAWC seeks to change laws in all 50 states.  

The major companies bankrolling the group’s anti-worker effort are household names (no pun intended): Lowe’s, WalMart, Safeway, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Sysco Food Systems, and several insurance companies.  The group’s mission is to pass laws allowing private employers to opt out of traditional workers’ compensation plans that almost every state requires businesses to carry.

As noted by Mother Jones writer Molly Redden, in the states where ARAWC’s desires have already been fulfilled, workers find themselves in a tough spot when an injury occurs:

Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, already allow employers to opt out of state-mandated workers’ comp. In Texas, the only state that has never required employers to provide workers’ comp, Walmart has written a plan that allows the company to select the physician an employee sees and the arbitration company that hears disputes. The plan provides no coverage for asbestos exposure. And a vague section of the contract excludes any employee who was injured due to his “participation” in an assault from collecting benefits unless the assault was committed in defense of Walmart’s “business or property.” It is up to Walmart to interpret what “participation” means. But the Texas AFL-CIO has argued that an employee who defended himself from an attack would not qualify for benefits.

A 2012 survey of Texas companies with private plans found that fewer than half offered benefits to seriously injured employees or the families of workers who died in workplace accidents. (The state plan, which Texas companies can follow on a voluntary basis, covers both.) Half of employer plans capped benefits, while the state plan pays benefits throughout a worker’s recovery.

ARAWC’s plan is becoming known as “the Tennessee Option” and they are beginning to target nearby states where their donors have major operations.  Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina are all on the group’s radar.

In Tennessee, the bill proposed by State Sen. Mark Green would not require companies to pay for artificial limbs, hearing aids, home care, funeral expenses, or disability modifications to a home or car for injured workers.  All of these benefits are currently mandated under the state’s system.  Gary Moore, President of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, spoke to Mother Jones about this underhanded effort:

“This piece of legislation is designed as a cost-saving measure for the employer,” Moore says. “Anywhere they save a dollar, it costs the employees a dollar. It’s just a shift in costs.”

While Green is open to adding funeral benefits and rehab training to his bill, it would still so dramatically alter the system that legitimately injured workers would be in serious jeopardy of having their financial futures ruined.  For those with more permanent injuries, Sen. Green’s bill would allow companies to stop paying lifetime benefits after three years or $300,000, whichever comes first.  

Kind of takes the “lifetime” out of it, doesn’t it?

While ARAWC differs from some political organizations in that it is transparent about its bankroll, it remains an aggressive pay-to-player in a political system that allows legislative manipulation based on donations. Read Redden’s entire Mother Jones piece for the full rundown on the workers’ comp gun-down.


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