ANNAPOLIS – A proposal to deny workers’ compensation to employees who were drunk or on drugs when they were hurt on the job was attacked Thursday as “an attempt to deny benefits to workers in Maryland.”
Primo Padeletti, secretary treasurer of the Maryland AFL- CIO, pointed out that premiums for workers’ compensation in Maryland have fallen 30 percent over the last 10 years.
“That’s the sign of a working system,” he said.
But supporters of the bill told the House Economic Matters Committee Thursday that the current law makes it “virtually impossible” to deny benefits to someone who hurt himself because he was drunk or high.
One lobbyist who supported the change said he saw nothing wrong with putting the fear of God into workers, if it meant they would not come to work under the influence.
Under the bill, which was passed by the Senate last week, employers could deny workers’ comp benefits if they proved that drugs or alcohol were the primary — not the sole — cause of a worker’s accident. But the burden of proof stays with the employer.
Businesses would also be required to pay the injured worker’s medical expenses under the bill, whether the employee was drunk or not at the time of the injury. The law now lets them deny such coverage.
Robert C. Erlandson, a lawyer testifying in favor of the bill, said the biggest misperception about it is that it would deny benefits to workers.
Bill sponsor Del. Van T. Mitchell, D-Charles, told the committee that the changes would merely modernize a law that has become outdated.
“You’re not changing anything here except the standard which was established in 1914. Since then drugs have become more pervasive,” he said.
Del. Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel and chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, said the use of drugs and alcohol in the workplace should not be rewarded.
“The question is, how do we legislate this?” he said.
Bills to change the law have failed in the House in each of the last two years. This year, however, the bill has 76 sponsors in the 141-member House, including 13 members of the 23-member Economic Matters Committee.
One change in the proposal from previous years is an exemption for law enforcement officials who must take controlled substances in the line of duty, such as an undercover police officer. Cops who are just intoxicated on the job, however, are not exempt.
Charles J. Krysiak, chairman of the workers’ compensation commission, said in his 19 years at the commission he’s only seen employers raise the issue of intoxicated workers about five or six times, because “sole” responsibility was too hard to prove.
But, he said, if this bill passes “you’ll see people really using this as a defense and then you’ll see what was really going on.”
The bill has been heavily lobbied by both labor and business groups, with lobbyists outnumbering lawmakers at Thursday’s committee hearing.