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Democratic Lawmakers Press Labor Officials To Step Up Workers' Comp Oversight

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We have an update now on our investigation in collaboration with ProPublica on changes in workers' compensation. We reported last week that states have been cutting benefits, and employers are doing the same by opting out of workers' comp. Now 10 top U.S. House and Senate Democrats are seeking action from the Labor Department. NPR's Howard Berkes joins us now. Good morning.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And what do these lawmakers want the Labor Department to do about this?

BERKES: These Democrats are ranking members of Senate and House committees, and they cite the NPR/ProPublica investigation in a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. They want him to reactivate a program that used to monitor annual changes in state workers' comp programs and benefits. They also want to report on what additional authority may be needed - that means legislation - to make sure injured workers are not harmed when employers dump out of workers' comp completely and when states rewrite their workers' comp laws.

MONTAGNE: And these lawmakers, whom are they exactly, and what specifically alarms them?

BERKES: Well, Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders signed the letter, as did Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia and others. They said the race to the bottom and the cutting of workers' comp benefits now appears bottomless. Here's Congressman Scott.

ROBERT SCOTT: Well, what happens is if the workers aren't getting benefits under workers' comp, a lot of them end up getting benefits under Social Security disability or Medicaid, food stamps, because they're not working. And so there is a strong federal interest in making sure that the workers' comp programs pay appropriate benefits.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's interesting that Representative Scott asserted a strong federal interest, as he put it, because workers' comp is controlled by states.

BERKES: Yeah, then that's a key point, and there's a question about what roles do the Labor Department or Congress really have here. But as Congressman Scott noted, cuts in workers' comp benefits send injured workers to the Social Security disability program. That's expected to run short of money next year. So there's a growing argument for a federal role.

MONTAGNE: And the Labor Department, how has it responded?

BERKES: So far, the agency tells us it shares the concerns expressed by these members of Congress, but there's no commitment to any specific action except to review the letter and to engage stakeholders.

MONTAGNE: All right, thanks very much, Howard.

BERKES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Howard Berkes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.