New Jersey is known for many things, including these odd tidbits: three consecutive governors broke their legs while in office (Whitman, McGreevey, Corzine); no self-serve gas; no state song; the lowest rate of depression in the US. And an idiosyncratic workers comp system that has not been changed significantly since the 1970s. We will pass on whether they need a state song (surely Springsteen could provide one), but the comp system needs some fixing.
Dunstan McNichol and John Martin, writing a multi-part series in the Star-Ledger, have done an admirable job exposing the considerable holes in the New Jersey comp system. With inordinate delays in the provision of benefits (it can take years), with no way to determine whether injured workers are receiving the benefits they need, with political patronage the order of the day in the appointment of judges, and with a bureaucratic structure that makes New York seem streamlined (yikes!), New Jersey is operating in the darkest of dark ages.
McNichol and Martin point to the plight of John DeJulio, a retired veteran working at Home Depot. He slipped on a puddle and broke his leg. It took more than three years to secure approval for knee surgery: over the course of two years he had to see five specialists and attend nine court hearings before the surgery was approved.
Claimant Joe DelDuca was involved in a work-related car crash. When a hearing on his claim was postponed for the 8th time in two years, he plowed his pick up truck through the glass entrance of a workers comp courthouse in Morris County. (No, any injuries resulting from this rash act would not be work related.) Ironically, his desparate ploy worked. One week later the judge order all parties back to court, weeks ahead of the scheduled hearing. They settled DelDuca's claim in a few hours. Unfortunately for the claimant, he was subsequently jailed for 6 months and died within two years of his claim's resolution.
New Jersey definitely goes its own way in comp. In terms of cost to employers, they are middle of the pack, ranked in the most recent Oregon study at 23rd overall. They run their own, unique experience rating system, independent of NCCI. Benefits can be generous, but they also can be extremely stingy: workers with minor injuries can receive permanent partial awards, even after returning to full duty; on the other hand, workers reaching maximum medical improvement (MMI) can lose all benefits, along with their jobs. McNichols and Martin describe the inordinate delays in accessing the second injury fund.
In most states, a workers comp advisory council oversees the performance of the system and makes recommendations for improvements. These councils, a blend of labor, management and administrators, can serve a vital function in fine-tuning benefits and in defining parameters for eligibility. New Jersey has a council, but the meetings are closed to the public and minutes are not recorded. Kind of a Star Chamber for comp, which, given the way things currently operate, is emblematic of a deeply flawed system.
Employers are generally content with the current state of affairs, because it is reasonably cost effective. The only real pain in New Jersey belongs to injured workers, who can encounter considerable difficulty in securing the benefits they need to stay afloat. I suspect that injured workers in the Garden state might have a few suggestions for a state song: the Stones's "I can't get no satisfaction," or maybe the Ray Charles classic, "Drown in My Own Tears."