Making the case to Workers Comp
By TOM RAFFERTY
Bismarck Tribune
The state could soon be paying $500 apiece to help disgruntled employees change workers compensation laws - an arrangement that could be the first of its kind in the state.

The money would be used to help people who have had claims with Workforce Safety and Insurance to hire an attorney or consultant to make a case before a new legislative committee.

"It would be the first time in my history that it's ever been done,"Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, said.

Keiser is chairman of the Workers Compensation Review Committee, which was created by the Legislature earlier this year to give employees a chance to make a case to the Legislature of why they think workers compensation laws need to be changed.

The committee will hear from people whose cases have already been closed, and will have no authority to overturn rulings in any case.

Rep. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, a member of the committee, said the group's role will be to collect information.

"I think this is an opportunity of last resort. It's for people to come forward and tell the Legislature that this is something that needs to be addressed,"Klein said. "We can either make it a gripe session or we can use it to take some solid history to the Legislature."

On Monday, the committee passed a motion that requests $10,000 from the Legislative Council, which consists of 17 legislators, to help workers make their case. Funding would be limited to $500 per case.

John Olsrud, director of the Legislative Council, said all expenses of interim legislative committees other than their scheduled meetings, must be approved by the Legislative Council or the chairman of the Legislative Council.

Keiser said he is in the process of drafting a request for the funding.

Sen. Joel Heitkamp, D-Hankinson, said for the committee to have teeth, the funding needs to be there to help workers.

"No one will bring a case up that they already lost without some help to do it,"Heitkamp said.

Keiser said providing up to $500 for each person to present their case is only one option that could be available. Workers will also have access to an ombudsman through the Bureau of Independent Review to help make their case.

Keiser said the committee is trying to create a forum where the worker can make a convincing and organized argument for changes in workers compensation laws.

One challenge the committee faces is informing workers of the committee's existence.

When the Legislature created the committee, it specified for it to meet quarterly as long as someone has a case to present.

"If no one comes forward then we will never meet again,"Keiser said.

Those who wish to present their case to the committee must notify the Legislative Council and sign a release allowing legislators to look through their file from WSI. The information in the file will be available to the committee only during the day they meet and will not be available to the public. However, legislators will be allowed to discuss the information in the files openly during the public meetings.

Keiser said workers have been critical of WSI, but oftentimes legislators weren't able to hear both sides of the story unless a worker signed a waiver allowing legislators to see the files or give WSI officials permission to talk about the case.

"They have to sign a release, otherwise we only have their word,"Keiser said.

Mark Armstrong, a spokesman for Workforce Safety and Insurance, said the agency will be on hand at the meetings to provide information and a rebuttal.

People who wish to appear before the committee should contact the Legislative Council at 328-2916. The first meeting could occur in about 10 weeks if someone comes forward with a case.

(Reach reporter Tom Rafferty at 223-8482 or tom.rafferty@;bismarcktribune.com.)