Evolution of workers' compensation in Wyoming

2008-03-16T00:00:00Z Evolution of workers' compensation in Wyoming Casper Star-Tribune Online
March 16, 2008 12:00 am

1915: Wyoming Legislature passes the Wyoming Workmen's Compensation Law.

1917: Wyoming Legislature increases employee benefits and cuts employer premiums by 25 percent.

1918: Wyoming Supreme Court determines the new law constitutional. In the case Zancanelli v. Central Coal and Coke Co., the court asserts that in the bargain of workmen's compensation, "both employers and employees gave up something that they each might gain something else, and it was in the nature of a compromise." The court suggests both suffered under the old system; employers suffered heavy and numerous judgments, and employees suffered through an expensive, bureaucratic litigation system that didn't always produce results.

1970s: Nixon administration forces states to review their workers' compensation programs in order to curb a perceived "race to the bottom," a concern that states were competing to have the lowest premiums in order to attract business. Employee benefits are increased in Wyoming in response, but premiums are not adjusted.

1980-85: Wyoming's workers' compensation program pays out more money than it takes in from premiums.

1985: Wyoming Legislature kills a proposal to increase employer premiums, but allows the workers' compensation program to borrow $15 million from the state.

1986: Legislature repeals the "joint and several liability" statutes, which are legal tools used to assign degrees of liability in workplace deaths and injuries.

June 1986: Gov. Ed Herschler convenes a special legislative session to address workers' compensation. The program is losing about $700,000 monthly. The Legislature increases the ceiling on employer premiums from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent. The increase doesn't generate much more revenue, and the program continues to pay out more in benefits than it receives in premiums.

1989: Wyoming Legislature passes eight bills amending the Wyoming Workers' Compensation Act, including one that transfers the authority for processing claims from District Court clerks to the Workers' Compensation Division itself. Legislation also includes a surcharge of 12 percent on an employer's base-rate premium.

Before the 1989 legislative session, at least two Wyoming Supreme Court decisions narrow employer immunity. Two of the amendments are aimed at reversing that trend. One amendment allows joint employers to pay into a consolidated workers' compensation account. There are also changes to the definitions of which jobs are classified as "hazardous" and "extra-hazardous."

1989: Creation of the state Department of Employment transfers Wyoming Workers' Compensation from the state treasurer's office to the Department of Employment. As a result, day-to-day operation of workers' compensation is no longer under the control of an elected official, but under a state official appointed by the governor.

1991: Legislature enacts a phased-in increase of employer premiums, to 6.5 percent in 1992, 7.5 percent in 1993, and 8.5 percent in 1994.

1993: Legislature passes 18 bills regarding workers' compensation. Among them: creation of the WWC Medical Commission, which means that the Office of Administrative Hearings no longer has exclusive jurisdiction over a contested workers' compensation case. Legislature also extends immunity to include co-employees unless they "intended to cause physical harm or injury."

1994: Legislature finally agrees to a phasing out of the premium cap altogether. In exchange, employee benefits are generally reduced and more procedural requirements are added to the claims process. Injured workers who cannot return to their normal occupations are required to accept either vocational rehabilitation benefits or permanent partial disability benefits. Mental injuries are excluded from compensable benefits unless caused by a compensable physical injury.

1995: Legislation authorizes employers to offer temporary light duty to injured workers in an effort to return injured workers to their jobs as quickly as possible.

1996: To further centralize claims processing, all workers' compensation-related duties still handled by District Court clerks are transferred to the Workers' Compensation Division. Addition of procedural requirements continues, including a requirement for an injured worker to submit a written account of an injury to his employer within 72 hours.

1997: The Workers' Compensation Division is given authority to contract medical bill audit and case management programs. Some attorneys criticize the division's claim that the audits save upwards of $12 million in 1996, and suggest the savings are inflated.

1998: The Workers' Compensation Division is authorized to grant premium credits to employers based on its investment earnings. Lawmakers also determine that income from spouses and children and others in the households of injured workers not be included in determining eligibility for extended benefits.

2002: Burial benefit is raised from $2,500 to $5,000. The division typically pays an additional $5,000 to cover related expenses, so the family of a worker who is killed on the job usually gets $10,000 from the division.

2003: The division is again allowed to create a premium deduction program.

2004: Temporary total disability benefit payment schedule is switched from once per month to twice monthly.

2005: The division is authorized to give pre-authorization for medical services. Now, the division typically does not give pre-authorization on any claim prior to July 1, 2005. Lawmakers also extend the deadline for the division to be fully funded from 2008 to 2013, but discount future reserves in determining the amount necessary to meet that requirement.

2006: Lawmakers allow premium discounts for employers who comply with drug and alcohol testing programs approved by the division. The division is also authorized to invest up to 45 percent of its fund in common stock.

- Compiled by Dustin Bleizeffer, based largely on the article, "The Breaking of a Compromise," by George Santini, published in the Wyoming Law Review, 1998, Vol. XXXIII

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