North Carolina’s esoteric Industrial Commission has recently come under public scrutiny. The balance of the commission, which decides workers comp cases and dispenses the state’s eugenics compensation fund, was upset by Gov. McCrory’s appointment of Charlton Allen, ultra-conservative, anti-worker lawyer to one of six seats.
Now, despite the controversy around Allen’s appointment, a General Assembly budget proposal could further erode the commission’s integrity by stripping deputy commissioners of their political independence.
Deputy commissioners are the judicial hearing officers that determine which cases go before the commission. While Industrial Commissioners are political appointees, deputy commissioners have typically been experts in labor law.
In the current House and Senate budget proposals, all 22 deputy commissioners’ employment would end within the next 18 months, with seven of the deputies ending their term in February 2015.
“Most of these deputy commissioners are highly knowledgeable with years of experience and I believe the plan to discharge them will ultimately not be good for workers or business,” said James Andrews, North Carolina AFL-CIO president.
In the Senate’s Industrial Commission proposal, deputy commissioners would serve four-year terms. The House proposal would have deputies serve eight-year terms with no limits.
By forcing the deputies to be evaluated for reappointment, their past decisions would be up for scrutiny by the administration. “We think deputy commissioners should be independent officers, free from influence from any side in politics,” said Todd Barlow, political affairs counsel for N.C. Advocates for Justice. “These are folks hearing cases and weighing the facts to make legal decisions and it’s not being treated that way.”
Deputy commissioners have long had protection from political blowback under the State Personnel Act. But in the final hours of the General Assembly’s 2013 session, the legislature passed a law that exempted them from this judicial protection.
Effective July 1, 2015, the governor or the chairperson of the Industrial Commission (who is appointed by the governor) could fire insubordinate deputy commissioners.
“If you look at these changes together, it’s a trend away from treating deputy commissioners as independent judicial officers,” said Barlow.
The problems with this plan are obvious. Deputy commissioners accept or reject compensation claims by workers, and their decisions could be easily politicized. A deputy commissioner will now have to think twice about whether or not to pass on a worker’s comp case brought forward by an employee of the state.
In addition to stripping deputy commissioners of their hearing officer status, a 2011 change to worker’s compensation limited workers to 500 weeks of compensation, regardless of the severity of their injury. McCrory’s latest two appointees to the commission, Charlton Allen and chairman Andrew T. Heath, have little experience in worker’s compensation law.
Allen is explicitly opposed to collective bargaining rights, paid sick leave and a minimum wage. The Department of Commerce, which oversees the Industrial Commission, declined to comment on these proposed budget provisions.
Andrews said drastic changes to the Industrial Commission have been proposed before, but in the past, the state AFL-CIO was able to work with the business community and legislators to dull the impact and hopes the same can happen now.
“I think this kind of proposal here brings changes workers and business will want to put a stop to so we can ensure that workers get the compensation they need until they can go back to work,” Andrews said.