ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that makes it easier to deny workers’ compensation benefits to employees who are drunk or on drugs when they are hurt on the job.
Supporters of the bill said it sends a strong message that the workplace is no place for drugs or alcohol. But labor leaders called it a dramatic — and unfair — change in workers’ compensation.
“For the first time in the history of Maryland’s no-fault insurance, they’re introducing fault. We’ll have to wait and see if this hurts any workers,” said Primo Padeletti, secretary treasurer of the Maryland AFL-CIO.
After four years of trying, the measure passed Wednesday when the Senate agreed to accept a House version of the bill that dropped a specific exemption for police officers injured on the job. The bill now goes to Gov. Parris Glendening who will sign it, a spokesman said Thursday.
Current law requires that employers prove that intoxication was the sole cause of injury if they are trying to deny benefits to the worker. The bill would change that standard so that businesses would only have to prove that drugs and alcohol were the “primary” cause of the accident.
But the burden of proof stays with the employer.
“Primary cause is still very hard to prove,” said Del. Van T. Mitchell, D-Charles, and a supporter of the change.
The bill does provide that the Workers’ Compensation Commission will pay medical expenses, even when intoxication is found to be the primary cause of an injury. Current law denies any benefits to a worker, if the employer proves the “sole cause” standard.
At a February hearing on the bill, Workers’ Compensation Commission Chairman Charles J. Krysiak said the “sole” responsibility standard was so hard to prove that he had only seen it raised in five or six cases in his 19 years in the job.
He said at the time that, if the bill passed, “you’ll see people really using this as a defense and then you’ll see what was really going on.”
Sen. Jean W. Roesser, R-Montgomery and Senate sponsor of the bill, said she was glad to finally see it pass. Once signed by the governor, the law will take effect Oct. 1.
“The governor will sign the bill, I’m absolutely sure, because the … General Assembly pushed so hard,” Padeletti said.
Barbara Wilkins, director of public policy at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said this bill sends a very strong message that drugs and alcohol will not be tolerated in the workplace.
“Employers react very, very strongly to drug and alcohol abuse,” she said. “It is a danger to everyone in the workplace, especially those who come to work sober and drug-free.”