A bill in the Montana Legislature would allow employers to deny workers’ compensation claims for employees who fail to disclose relevant prior workplace injuries.
The bill, SB 116, was proposed by Sen. Mark Blasdell (R-Kalispell) and would require employees to be open and honest in pre-employment questionnaires with regard to any injuries that may impact their ability to perform their jobs.
If employees don’t disclose those prior injuries, and are injured on the job, the employer would legally be allowed to deny the claim, according to the proposed measure. The bill passed in the House and Senate and is now on its way to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk for signing.
If signed, the law would go into effect on July 1. Legislative aides would not speculate whether or not the governor would sign it. It is expected to land on his desk this week, where he has ten days to act on it.
“It’s a matter of workplace safety,” Blasdell said during hearings before the House Business and Labor Committee on March 21. Proponents for the bill, which include the Montana Chamber of Commerce and the Montana Contractors Association, said the bill was not only a cost saver for employers, but also an economic development tool for Montana.
Terry Kramer, president and owner of Kramer Enterprises in Kalispell, MT, testified in favor of the bill before the House committee. He said during testimony that his company had recently hired a project supervisor, only to find out later that he was not the right person for the job. When Kramer and his staff were preparing to fire the employee, the employee showed up at the job site claiming he had hurt his back. The employee then filed for workers’ compensation, despite the fact that he had previously injured his back on another job site, Kramer said.
The claim, he said during testimony, raised his premiums, changed his workers’ compensation rating – despite a prior 10-year spotless record – and negatively impacted his company’s bottom line. It will also impact his willingness to do business in Montana, he said. As he plans to start a new franchise in the Northwest – investing $20 million and hiring in excess of 300 employees over the next five years – he will be doing it in a state other than Montana because of Montana’s workers compensation laws.
But opponents of the law say it is just another way for employers to deny workers’ compensation claims for employees without legal counsel.
“They want the stick of denying benefits to make sure their applicants are fully 'truthful',” Al Smith with the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, said in an email to WorkersCompensation.com. “This is another chipping away of workers' rights, especially for the workers who are not represented by legal counsel, the vast majority of claimants. There is no significant problem to be fixed, this won't save significant money, and individual workers will be significantly harmed.”
Smith said there has been no evidence presented that there is significant harm being done to employers by employees failing to disclose previous injuries. But the potential injury to employees, he said, is in needing to disclose their entire medical history to employers.
According to Smith, this could require employees to report injuries that had happened to them years ago, for which they had recovered and were cleared to return back to work.
Sen. Jill Cohenour (D-East Helena) agreed. In comments on the Montana Senate floor in February, Cohenour said she suffers from a repetitive motion injury she received some years ago that was successfully treated, but that occasionally returns. She said she worried that disclosing could prevent employers from hiring her, but that failing to report that, even though it happened years previously, and was treated, could prevent her from collecting workers’ compensation if actions on a current job reinjured her.
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