City of Tulsa plans changes to cut down on workers compensation claims, costs
BY ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor & CURTIS KILLMAN World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2013
2/10/13 at 8:13 AM
Read past stories and view data and documents related to workers compensation issues.
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett and other city officials say they are trying to repair the "three-legged stool" that forms the wobbly foundation of the city's high workers compensation costs.
The city's cost of caring for and compensating injured employees has been high for years, studies have shown.
The question city leaders face now is how to fix the problem.
A safety steering committee has been meeting monthly to come up with new ways to instill a culture of safety among city employees. Members of the police and fire unions and other large employee groups are on the committee.
Bartlett said the city's high workers compensation costs, compared to those of other cities, affect taxpayers as well as employees.
"With our employees, their families assume that when the breadwinner leaves in the morning at the beginning of their shift and comes to work here, they are going to come home in the same condition, and a lot of times they don't, and that's not good," Bartlett said. "It's terrible for the employee, for the individual, obviously. It's terrible for their families, and it's terrible for the taxpayer."
A Tulsa World analysis of five years of data from workers compensation court found that the city of Tulsa ranks fourth statewide in the total amount awarded to injured workers: $16.96 million.
The city of Oklahoma City, with about 1,300 more employees, had almost an identical amount of total awards in workers compensation court: $16.98 million. The city of Oklahoma City ranked third-highest in the state in total awards during the period - 2007 through 2011 - among public or private employers.
City of Tulsa officials have known for a while they have a problem with workers compensation. The city's workers comp costs increased more than 40 percent between 2003 and 2011.
A study by DuPont Sustainable Solutions in July found that the city had a "weak safety culture."
Tulsa averaged 21 reportable injuries per 100 employees for 2008 through 2010, DuPont found. That rate is more than three times the national average for local government employees.
The city is planning a number of changes, including charging city departments the actual cost for their employees' injuries. That system starts in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, Bartlett said.
Erica Felix-Warwick, the city's personnel director, said all city departments currently receive a "charge back" for workers comp costs based on a citywide average. That means the Performing Arts Center pays the same costs per employee for workers compensation-related expenses as the Tulsa Fire Department.
"There's no accountability, and the departments that have a lot of comp claims and a lot of costs associated with those injuries, it will be an impact to their budget," Felix-Warwick said.
"If the other things aren't going to get a department head's attention, that certainly will, because it will give them less money to spend on other things."
Kelly Brader, director of the city's Management Review Office, said the DuPont study was a wakeup call for the city.
"It told us that we needed to improve in all areas of being what we call the 'three-legged stool': the safety and training culture. ... We also need to look at those claims and how we handled those claims as well as the medical part of it."
Brader said the city is "going to dive into" each of the three areas - safety, claims and medical care - and is organizing its efforts through the steering committee.
A city report examined data from 2001 through 2011 and found a number of interesting trends. The Fire Department led the way in nearly every category when it comes to expense of workers compensation claims. More than 6,000 firefighters filed claims totaling more than $19 million during that time - the most claims and highest amount among all departments.
The Police Department had the second-highest number of claims, more than 4,700, but total claims by Public Works employees were more expensive during that period, the city report shows.
City officials say it's no surprise that police and firefighters have the vast majority of workers compensation claims. Their work involves running into burning buildings and arresting combative people.
"Without a doubt it's a dangerous job," Felix-Warwick said.
However, some employee groups - especially firefighters - are more likely to drive up expenses by filing claims in workers compensation court, she and other city officials said.
"From a total workers comp perspective, they (firefighters) are very litigious," said Pam Marrs, who handles the city's workers compensation program.
Marrs said a high percentage of firefighters also retire as disabled. She said that may be partially due to a state law exempting retired firefighters' disability income from state taxes.
Fire Capt. Chad Miller, president of the Tulsa Firefighters Local 176, is a member of the city's safety steering committee. He said claims that the union advises members to file legal claims for workers compensation are "totally untrue."
"The truth is our firefighters are denied probably 90 percent of the time" by the city, he said.
Miller said police and firefighters are not on the city's health insurance plans, so city officials have an incentive to try to push claims onto those employees' insurance companies. He also said fire departments in other cities staff firetrucks with more employees, leading to fewer injuries.
"Part of it is just the reality that the city has chosen to staff the Fire Department with three people on each truck instead of the four that most cities have."
Miller said firefighting is a dangerous job filled with possible workplace injuries.
"Anytime you work outdoors and you throw in bad weather, ... fire, falling debris ... You can only be so safe."
City physician Dr. Phillip Berry sees all but the most serious employee injuries initially to determine whether they are work-related. He said the most common employee complaint involves pain, often due to "part of the aging process" rather than a workplace injury.
"It's not unusual for me to say, 'No, this is not a workers comp injury' ... and six months later I get a (financial) settlement coming through my office."
Berry said some employee groups are more likely to pursue their claims in workers compensation court.
"It's not unusual for somebody to come in here that ... they've been advised up front to become litigated. I try to explain to them that it delays their care, makes it more complicated (and) more costly."
Jason Smitherman, risk manager for the city of Oklahoma City, said his city has struggled with some of the same issues Tulsa is facing. Oklahoma City has been charging departments for their workers comp costs for years instead of averaging them, he said.
Another cost-saving measure involves "return to work and light-duty programs" to get employees back on the job, he said.
Chad Peery - a police officer who was severely injured when breaking up a bar fight - is back at work despite being a quadriplegic, Smitherman said.
Oklahoma City's firefighters, meanwhile, don't go back to work until they are "100 percent," he said. The city's fire union has said it would consider a light-duty program, Smitherman said.
"A culture of safety is something that has to be part of whatever it is you do on a daily basis," he said. "It's like anything else: If you don't put it into practice every day, the muscle weakens."
Top 10 most expensive injuries
In an effort to better control costs and improve workplace safety, the city now collects and tracks many statistics on workers compensation costs, including the most expensive cases. Such cases frequently involve serious injuries to the spine that require one or more surgeries. Here are the top 10 most expensive workers compensation cases involving city of Tulsa employees, including the employee's department.
|Streets & Stormwater||314,934|
|Streets & Stormwater||299,464|
|Water & Sewer||282,126|
|Streets & Stormwater||214,849|
Source: City of Tulsa
Original Print Headline: Safety and savings
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8307
Curtis Killman 918-581-8471
Tulsa city employee Brandon Lewis directs Sean Adams as he uses a loader to fill a hole made when a sewer line near 71st and Memorial was replaced. Physical jobs sometimes lead to injuries for employees, who then may file workers compensation claims. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World
Dr. Phillip Berry works on Tulsa Parks Department employee Rick Simpson at the city's Division of Occupational Medicine. Berry says he tells injured workers that taking their workers comp claims to court "delays their care, makes it more complicated (and) more costly." MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Tulsa city worker Craig Payne uses a track hoe to fill a hole made by the crew after replacing a sewer line near 71st Street and Memorial Drive. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World