(NJ Star Ledger)
Jersey Must Do Better
By Laura Craven
April 13, 2008, 6:00AMEditorial
New Jersey's nearly 100-year-old workers' compensation system is in desperate need of an overhaul.
The picture in "comp court" can verge on the Dickensian: Thousands of cases become bogged down for years, delaying much-needed payments to workers with the most serious injuries or disabilities. Compensation court judgeships are often treated as patronage plums, with skill and expertise taking a back seat to political connections.
Meanwhile, companies that violate the legal mandate to carry workers' comp insurance to protect their employees frequently face little danger of getting caught. Even if they do, they routinely shrug off the minuscule penalties for violations as a cost of doing business.
New Jersey must do better:
■ Case scheduling must become more efficient so that serious delays are no longer routine for many but the simplest matters. There is no excuse for allowing hearings in a typical compensation case to be rescheduled an average of more than a dozen times. Injured workers and witnesses and employers have better things to do than return to court over and over.
■ The procedure for selecting compensation judges must be strengthened to minimize the role of politics and maximize legal expertise. Comp judge candidates should be vetted by the relevant bar association, just as has long been done to ensure qualified candidates for Superior Court judgeships.
■ Legislation also is needed to allow the state Labor Department, which oversees the workers' comp system, to immediately suspend the operating licenses of businesses that flout workers' comp or other labor laws. The threat of suspension will help deter the large number of firms that now ignore their responsibility to protect their employees, estimated to include as many as 40 to 60 percent of firms in construction, landscaping and some other industries.
■ The Labor Department must be given the computer resources to manage workers' comp like the serious legal program it is instead of treating it like a bureaucratic and technical backwater. The department can't track basic data, such as the results in thousands of recent cases or how often employers or insurers are penalized for violating the law.
■ Comp judges must have better tools to discipline insurance companies or others who deliberately drag out cases or payments. Judges now can do little more than add interest payments to an insurer's bill. Fines and other sanctions are needed to bring recalcitrant payers into line.
The $1.8 billion workers' compensation system drew attention last year, when lawmakers overhauling the state's retirement system for public employees canceled a special provision that gave workers' comp judges generous pensions after only 10 years on the job.
Star-Ledger reporters Dunstan McNichol and John P. Martin then conducted a comprehensive, eight-month review of workers' compensation in New Jersey, the results of which were published last week over three days. Their review revealed that the pension plum was far from the only weakness in the system.
The delays and other flaws that they found attending complex compensation cases are simply unacceptable. And that isn't changed by the fact that the compensation system works reasonably well for many workers with more minor injuries or simpler cases.
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has recognized the need for reform, and so have other lawmakers, including Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union).
Cohen seeks sensible legislation to form a commission to give the workers' comp system its most comprehensive performance review since a State Commission of Investigation probe in the early 1970s.
This bill should be adopted. All sides involved in workers' comp would be represented, and the review should examine whether strategies successfully used by other states to upgrade their workers' compensation systems could translate into improvements in New Jersey.
Workers' compensation in New Jersey was set up in 1911 to quickly provide injured workers aid without burdening employers and the Superior Court system with expensive and time-consuming litigation.
For many workers today, the system fails that commitment. Gov. Jon Corzine and legislators should immediately take steps to ensure that the workers' compensation court system fully and fairly serves all injured workers.