Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Injured-workers bill fine-tuned

Businesses want benefits denied to people hurt on job while impaired

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Business groups are again pushing to deny injured workers benefits if the workers were drunk or on drugs at the time.

The Ohio Supreme Court last year overturned a law allowing benefits to be denied in such circumstances, angering the Ohio chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and others.

That law, which forced injured workers to prove they weren't under the influence, was found to violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. Rep. Bob Gibbs, a Lakeville Republican, has introduced a bill that businesses believe would survive court scrutiny.

The new proposal "is clearly sending the signal that drugs and alcohol won't be tolerated in the workplace, and if you do use them, there are serious consequences to you as an individual in terms of trying to collect benefits while intoxicated or high," Roger Geiger, federation state director, said Tuesday.

Also under the bill, an employee who refuses to be tested could lose benefits.

The previous law was construed as allowing random tests for alcohol or drug use following an injury.

In response, the proposed legislation offers specific examples of when a worker can be tested, such as when an employer suspects a worker is impaired or at the request of a doctor or police officer, Geiger said.

"You've got to specifically think there's a problem and specifically order a test when an injured worker shows up in the hospital," he said.

Labor groups, who hailed the state Supreme Court's December decision, say the new legislation would erode the rights of injured workers.

Ohio's benefits are based on a "no-fault" system that guarantees protection, said Gary DiCeglio, director of compensation for the AFL-CIO of Ohio.

"Right now, it shouldn't matter why a person is injured at work," DiCeglio said Tuesday. "That coverage should be available."

The bill could open the door to further benefit limits, he said.

"What's next? If you don't have safety glasses, you won't have coverage? No steel-toe shoes, no coverage?" he said.

The union opposes any employee coming to work under the influence, he added.

Unions sued the state immediately after the previous law was enacted in April 2001.

A four-justice majority of the state Supreme Court eventually said the law did not fit within what the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be a "closely guarded" category of constitutionally permissible searches without warrants.

The same majority earlier angered business groups by declaring the state's school funding system unconstitutional and overturning a law that would have limited damage awards in lawsuits.

Since then, newly elected Justice Maureen O'Connor replaced one of the four, Andy Douglas, who retired. Geiger said business groups feel the court will uphold the proposed law.

O'Connor, an Akron Republican, gave no promises during her 2002 campaign. She said only she would interpret the law strictly when ruling.

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