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Senate debates expanding worker's comp program

The bill would amplify the terms of worker protection, and opponents argue it is not worth the cost

Legislation proposed in the State Senate in February would expand the state’s temporary disability insurance program to cover workers who need to take time off work to care for family emergencies or a new family member.

The legislation, proposed by Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, would broaden the program’s benefits to accommodate individuals who need to take time off to care for sick, injured or new family members. TDI currently only compensates workers experiencing temporary disability or injury.

Rhode Island’s TDI — which is supported entirely through worker contributions — funds wage replacement for individuals unable to work due to non-employment-related illness or injury, according to the Rhode Island Department of Labor Training website. TDI became the first program of its type to be implemented in the United States in 1942 and remains one of few programs nationwide, according to Department of Labor Transportation. Similar systems exist in New York, New Jersey, California and Hawaii.

This expansion will directly affect just under 400,000 workers who pay into the program, Goldin said. But it will residually affect all Rhode Islanders, since it offers support for workers and their families, she added.

The bill includes rules, regulations, an application process and a certification process, as well as penalties to prevent fraudulent use of the funds, Goldin said.

This expansion is intended to be a “cost-effective strategy” to modernize the program to fit today’s lifestyles and incorporate the “push-pull” dynamic between work and family, she said. It also offers employers a sense of stability and confidence in their workforce, as it allows workers to take necessary leave and return after coping with their problems, she added.

Ken Block, chairman of the Rhode Island Moderate Party, said he disagrees with the premise of the bill, noting that Rhode Island’s TDI program is already an “extremely expensive insurance” policy that can cost individuals as much as $720 per year.

Part of the concern, Block said, is the state’s mandate of TDI contributions, which forces employees to spend part of their paycheck in a certain way. Before augmenting TDI, there should be “study and evaluation of the program as it sits right now,” he added.

With the potential for increased usage and subsequent tax increases, the TDI expansion will make an already expensive program even more expensive, Block said. In Rhode Island, employees already take leaves through TDI at a rate of 9 percent, a higher percentage than workers in other states, he added.

Ashley Denault MPP’07, director of research with the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, said critics suggest “our TDI program — the way it is structured — places our state at a disadvantage.” Denault said the program’s structure allows for the possibility of individuals collecting more from the system than they paid into it, pressure on employers to compensate for payroll taxes and the incentivization of unnecessarily long stretches of leave.

But Goldin said studies in California and New Jersey — which implemented similar programs in 2004 and 2009, respectively — show neutral to positive effects in areas such as employee morale, productivity and focus, adding that the proposed changes should have positive implications for public health.



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