Learning About Criminal Law Proceedings

What Changes Were Recently Made To Oklahoma's Workers' Compensation Laws?

Even if you've never had the need to file a workers' compensation claim with your employer, you may have heard about the recent Oklahoma Supreme Court decision holding that the "opt-out" provision of the state's workers' compensation law was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection rights and guarantees available to all state residents. This decision makes Oklahoma the 49th state to eliminate opt-out provisions in workers' compensation law, leaving only its southern neighbor – Texas – with the potential for private or self-insured workers' comp coverage. What practical changes will this legal ruling create? Read on to learn more about the recent ruling in Vasquez v. Dillard's, as well as what this could mean for any future workers' compensation claims you incur in the Sooner State. 

What did the Oklahoma Supreme Court change about workers' compensation law? 

In most states, employees who are injured on the job will file a claim with their employer's workers' compensation insurer, seeking payment for medical expenses, lost wages, healthcare-related expenses (like transportation to and from the doctor), and other costs associated with the injury. Some states fund their own workers' compensation program, assessing a tax on most employers and using this revenue to fund workers' compensation payments for covered workers. Other states maintain a database or directory of approved insurance providers and permit each employer to select its own coverage from a range of plans. Prior to this lawsuit, Oklahoma and Texas were the only two states that allowed private employers to opt out of this workers' compensation requirement, either self-funding their own insurance program or purchasing insurance from an out-of-state provider. 

In Vasquez v. Dillard's, an injured employee filed suit against her employer (who had exercised its rights under the opt-out provision to seek private insurance), alleging that the state's laws permitting employers to go outside the state's workers' compensation plan -- and sometimes even waive injured employees' ability to sue in state or federal court – was an overly broad and unconstitutional violation of equal protection laws. Because the Oklahoma law at issue not only allowed employers to opt out of state-run insurance, but also eliminated the application of any workers' compensation laws to employers who had opted out, it was deemed to essentially create a sub-class of workers who were not afforded the same protections (from privacy of medical or healthcare information to the right to sue the employer or request mediation) as those whose employers adopted the state plan.

How could these changes affect a potential future workers' compensation claim? 

Although this ruling is likely to have little effect on those who have already filed claims with employers who have opted out of the state's workers' compensation fund (as any new insurance policies purchased by employers are unlikely to apply retroactively), those who could have claims in the future may find themselves facing a much different process. As the opt-out provision has been deemed unconstitutional, employers who have previously opted out will now be required to obtain insurance through a state-approved source. 

This change should go a long way toward streamlining the claims procedure and making the processes more predictable by subjecting all employers to the same legal requirements, but it may require an adjustment period for many employers as fiscal staff and HR specialists rework their policies and procedures to fall in line with state requirements. If you are injured on the job, you'll want to notify your employer as quickly as possible so that the claims process can begin; if your employer seems a bit lost when it comes to the recent workers' compensation changes, you may want to consult an attorney to ensure your legal rights are protected. You can find an attorney at a firm like Gilbert, Blaszcyk & Milburn LLP.