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ND Labor Leader: Workers Comp System Failing Injured Workers

December 11, 2006

Bismarck, ND - Between 19,000 and 20,000 people in North Dakota are injured on the job every year, but getting compensation for missed work time is difficult at best these days. Labor leaders say that's because the state's workers' comp system is "broken." A state audit of the Workers Safety and Insurance Agency (WSI) found low employee morale and a high rate of employee turnover.

North Dakota AFL-CIO President David Kemnitz says the WSI's administration is a big part of the problem.

"The executive director refused to allow the auditors' office to sit in confidence with employees and ask them questions about why they would have such low morale. What kind of answer are you going to get when your boss -- who's the final arbiter of any grievance -- is sitting there, too?"

Kemnitz says the 100-plus page audit outlines 60 recommendations for improving worker's compensation in the state.
The WSI used to fall under the scrutiny of the governor, but state lawmakers made it an independent agency in 1997. Kemnitz thinks making the department accountable to the state could be one solution.

"Being a state agency, it has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued. Now that it's been set off to the side, where there's no elected official with governance over it, it has blatant immunity to any political pressure, which is the people speaking to change."

Kemnitz feels the problems are hurting the workers who pay into the system, and says too many people who've been badly hurt have either been denied benefits, or given diminished benefits. WSI administrators say they're working on the morale problems.

Debbie Aasen/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - ND