Wyoming workers under fire for alleged abuse of unemployment benefits and workers comp

— June 6, 2013

Wyoming lawmakers are responding to concerns among employers that some workers who were fired for alleged misconduct still receive unemployment benefits. Lawmakers also heard accusations that an increasing number of workers in Wyoming are turning to workers compensation as a replacement for health care plans.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Employers offered no statistical analysis to back up the claims, but did provide some anecdotal evidence in testimony to the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee during its hearing in Casper on Wednesday.

Representatives from the cities of Casper and Gillette both outlined several cases in which the municipalities fired employees for alleged misconduct, and the employees qualified for unemployment benefits. They said that when the cities protested the decisions before Wyoming’s hearing commissions, employers were not allowed to present all evidence related to the firings, and said the appeals processes need to be revamped.

Some federal guidelines limit information that can be submitted in the appeals process, according to Wyoming Department of Workforce Services director Joan Evans. She said that staff turn-around had left the state with a lot of temporary workers to handle unemployment benefit appeals, resulting in a backlog of cases. The backlog has already been reduced, and the staffing issues are being resolved as Wyoming completes its merging of the Wyoming Department of Employment and the Department of Workforce Services into one entity.

However, “We’re still dealing with temporary staff in our claims center,” Evans told lawmakers.

Meanwhile, representatives of the municipalities said they want lawmakers to consider tweaking the state’s legal definition of employee misconduct, in addition to opening the appeals process to allow employers to present more evidence in the course of an appeal regarding unemployment benefits.

“We also have to look at the magnitude, and what it comes down to — a glitch in the process, or a definition?” said Evans. She said there were some 30,000 unemployment benefit claims filed in Wyoming in 2012, and of those 1,900 were reviewed for hearing and a “couple hundred” of those actually went before the state’s unemployment benefits commission.

“These individuals (state staff) are making a determination as a neutral party, assuming someone is telling the truth unless proven otherwise,” said Evans. She added that some complaints about allegedly unjust awards of unemployment benefits are coming from “credible employers who are talking to us right now, but we have other employers who are not (credible).”

To that point, Rep. Lee Filer (D-Laramie) said, “How are we going to get employees involved? … If we’re going to do this, let’s do this the right way.”

An effort to change the state’s legal definition of employee misconduct was killed during the last legislative session. Leaders of the labor committee said they may draft another bill for the 2014 session.

Workers Compensation

Employer constituents are also complaining to lawmakers that the Wyoming Supreme Court is overwhelmed with challenges to denied workers compensation claims. The cases should be resolved at the lower courts, according to Sen. Charlie Scott, co-chairman of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee.

Scott said this apparently stems from workers attempting to rely on Wyoming’s workers compensation program in the absence of affordable health insurance.

Evans said the Department of Workforce Services recently revamped its efforts to detect and investigate fraud in workers compensation. John Ysebaert, head of Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told lawmakers that the best sources to alert the state to potential fraud is ex-wives, ex-husbands, ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends.

Ysebaert added, “I tell people the biggest impediment to returning to work is daytime television.”

Sen. Scott suggested that too many workers compensation claims are bogus because some workers are “basically hypochondriacs,” and later added, “My contention is that we have not fully evolved to walking upright.”

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center — which represents many unions, environmental and policy watchdog groups, said there are two sides to the story when it comes to unemployment insurance and workers compensation claims.

“The committee has heard a lot from the employers’ perspective. … We hear from the other side; people get hurt, employers say ‘don’t file a workers comp claim.’” said Neal. “Our own experience has been we heard many reports of employers abusing the system as well.”

An investigative series by the Casper Star-Tribune in 2008 found that Wyoming Workers Compensation often denied claims for up to a year then eventually agreed with the validity of the claims. The practices prevented injured workers from returning to the workforce in timely fashion, and in some cases forced injured workers to rely on other social programs.

Workers also testified that unjustly denied claims by Wyoming’s workers compensation programs starved families financially, creating serious hardships.

In February 2012, state officials told WyoFile that out of Wyoming’s 18,228 employers, 1,212 of them were delinquent on their Wyoming Workers’ Compensation premiums — to the tune of $943,498.73. That’s 6.6 percent of Wyoming’s employers who pay into Wyoming Workers’ Compensation — delinquent of $1 million.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief and a former Powder River Basin coal miner. He has written about Wyoming’s energy industries for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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