PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Jason Kane was lifting someone from a wheelchair when he hurt his back, putting him out of work and into the workers’ compensation program.
Kane — who works for the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, or BHDDH — says he spent the next six months at home collecting a portion of his salary through the program until it was determined he was well enough to return to work.
“It was a drag,” said Kane, who is president of the Local 1293 union. “Most people don’t want to be sitting at home doing nothing. It’s not a good feeling.”
Kane is far from alone. An analysis by Target 12 shows 80 BHDDH employees were out on workers’ compensation in June, representing 7% of the department’s full-time employees — the highest share of any state department.
In all, more than 200 active state employees were out on workers’ comp in June, along with an additional 315 former employees, representing a costly and growing problem for the officials who manage state personnel.
Workers’ compensation cost taxpayers more than $30 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year, an increase of 54% from a decade earlier. The sizable spike is alarming state leaders, who have made some recent changes they say they hope will improve the overall system.
“We shouldn’t see the numbers that we’re seeing,” said Michael DiBiase, director of the R.I. Department of Administration, which oversees workers’ compensation for the state.
Workers’ compensation was originally designed to protect workers who sustained an on-the-job injury. But over the decades, it’s become a complicated system that’s costing millions more each year and in some ways making the workplace more dangerous, according to DiBiase.
“This becomes a vicious cycle,” DiBiase told Target 12. “If more people are out, we have to have more people do overtime and the longer we push them – the harder we push them – the more prone they are to break down and have injuries of all different kinds.”
The costs of injuries
The annual price tag for workers’ compensation to Rhode Island taxpayers is about $30 million, but that doesn’t account for the millions more spent backfilling shifts and assignments to cover for out-of-work employees.
In June, Target 12 reported taxpayers spent about $84 million on overtime pay last fiscal year, and two departments accounted for more than half the cost: the Department of Corrections and BHDDH.
Corrections paid the most largely because its 24-hour operations are often staffed by employees who work up to 32-hour shifts. BHDDH, however, was the second largest contributor, and workers’ compensation was a big part of the issue.
“Some of the biggest factors that cause overtime, beyond the 24/7 nature of the operations, are the time it takes to fill open positions and workers’ compensation cases,” BHDDH spokesperson Randal Edgar said at the time.
Department data shows two-thirds of BHDDH overtime costs were wracked up at Eleanor Slater Hospital, and 32% of those costs were a direct result of covering employees out on workers’ compensation.
BHDDH isn’t the only state department grappling with the rising costs of injured employees. More than 4% of the workforce at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families were out on workers’ comp as of June. A DOA spokesperson noted DCYF includes the R.I. Training School, where many of the injuries occur.
But BHDDH has the highest percentage of employees out, raising some concerns about what’s driving the trend.
“We would expect there to be higher incidence of workplace injuries, but we think the numbers we’re seeing there are higher than they should be,” DiBiase said.
The union pushes back, however, saying the work is simply dangerous.
“I just work the job and can see how people get hurt,” Kane said.
Out for 30 years
Workers’ compensation has historically posed a challenge for Rhode Island policymakers. The General Assembly created a separate Workers’ Compensation Court in 1991, dedicating a handful of courtrooms and judges at Providence District Court to the subject. Cases can last years, and on any given day the court calendar is full of hearings and decisions.
A Target 12 review of case information reveals workers’ compensation disputes between the state and its employees frequently wind up in court.
To get a sense of how often that happens, Target 12 cross-referenced payroll records of 1,386 BHDDH employees with open and closed cases in Workers’ Compensation Court.
The analysis found 660 cases matching the names of BHDDH workers, equal to nearly one case for every other BHDDH employee; however, sometimes a single person was involved in multiple cases.
“The process can be challenging for the employer, no doubt about it, but that is the system we have designed; that is what the law provides,” DiBiase said.
The median length of time a BHDDH worker is out on workers’ compensation is one year, but that’s not anywhere near the longest on the books: there is currently one active state worker, still employed by the secretary of state’s office, who has been out on workers’ comp since 1988.
Winds of change?
In May, Rhode Island entered into a contract with Beacon Mutual, the state-chartered insurer that specializes in workers’ compensation, to take on the state employee workers’ comp system.
The Warwick-based company will be paid on average about $1.7 million annually in exchange for a pledge to improve both workplace safety and the process that takes place after someone is injured.
The contract increased the state’s administrative costs, but DiBiase said officials are banking on a net decrease in overall workers’ comp costs this fiscal year as a direct result of Beacon Mutual making the program more efficient and the workplace safer.
“I’m embarrassed to say we haven’t as a state done that as much, and we could have prevented a number of these workplace injuries simply by training our employees or having certain processes with respect to for example disruptive patients, to help people to avoid injuries,” he said. “I think Beacon will help us a great deal.”
The company will also oversee investigating fraud, which the state has historically done in-house.
Nicole Bernard, attorney and staff representative for Council 94, likes the idea of Beacon making workers’ compensation more efficient, saying members are sometimes stuck out of work for longer than necessary because the process is slow-paced.
Ultimately, she said, people want to get back to work.
“I would be hopeful Beacon would move peoples’ medical cases along,” Bernard said. “We want to have our members getting their medical treatment faster and returning back to work.”
Correction: An early version of this story misstated the annual cost of the state’s contract with Beacon Mutual.