COLORADO UNINSURED EMPLOYERS AND A POSSIBLE NEW FUND

BACKGROUND

There has been growing governmental concern in the State of Colorado over uninsured employers. Changes to the Workers’ Compensation Act in 2005 created stiffer fines for employers who fail to comply with mandated coverage for workers’ compensation benefits. The Division of Workers’ Compensation Director is required to impose a fine of $250 per day for an initial offense. The 2005 changes to Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-43-409 included an increased fine range for companies that were non-compliant for a second time. Those companies now face up to a $500 per day fine. This statute specifically states that the ‘fine’ levied under the statute shall be the ‘penalty’ within the meaning of Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-43-304, but is in addition to the increase in benefits owed under Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-43-408.

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-43-409 governs the procedures for non-compliant employers. First, the Director is empowered to investigate and notify the non-compliant employer of their right to request a prehearing conference over the coverage issue. Second, if the Director determines that the employer is non-compliant, then the Director must take at least one of the following actions: (1) order the non-compliant employer to cease and desist its business operations while it is non-compliant; and/or (2) assess fines. After a cease and desist order is entered, the Attorney General immediately starts proceedings against the non-compliant employer to stop doing business. Further imposition of any fine under this statute, after appeal time frames have run, can be lodged with the District Court as a judgment. 25% of any fine collected would be directed to the workers’ compensation cash fund under Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-44-112, with the balance going to the state general fund. Finally, any fine under the statute is in addition to the increased benefits owed by the non-compliant employer under the preceding statute, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-43-408. This statute increases ordinary benefit exposure by 50% for non-compliant employers and puts in place a bonding requirement for the non-compliant employer.

 

BALANCING INTERESTS

Significant fines handed down to non-compliant employers have received press attention in the past. As reported in the Denver Post on August 29, 2016, a student run café at the University of Colorado was shut down after it was fined more than $224,000 for not having workers’ compensation coverage. The Complete Colorado, a blog run by local political commenter Todd Shepard, documented a $271,000 fine against a Longmont garden business for failing to comply with coverage requirements, as well as a $516,700 fine levied against fast food restaurant, El Trompito Taqueria. These fine amounts increased quickly as the result of the daily multiplier. The time frames of noncompliance were largely assumed by the Director because the employer could not prove coverage during these intervals. For a small employer to receive such a large fine can effectively put the employer out of business, leaving the injured worker with no practical recourse for benefits.

There are mitigating circumstances that may reduce fines levied against non-compliant employers. For instance, if the employer can show compliance once it has become aware of a lapse in coverage, this will mitigate the fine amount. A non-compliant employer paying benefits, essentially stepping into the shoes of a would-be insurer, also helps mitigate the fine.

The Director is obligated to try to ensure compliance while not effectively forcing employers out of business. This should be done with an eye toward trying to keep injured employees from having no benefit flow or treatment. When an injured worker has no coverage, it forces the injured worker to seek medical treatment through personal healthcare insurance or, or if no health care coverage exists, through self-pay methods, emergency room visits, treatment write-offs and/or charity. Many healthcare insurers reject coverage for treatment of a work injury since that liability should fall on a workers’ compensation carrier or employer. Further losses from unpaid and unreimbursed medical treatment through emergency rooms, write-offs or charity are ultimately passed on to employers and employees at large, who bear the burden of increasing insurance premiums as the result of uninsured employers and their injured employees.

 

LEGISLATIVE CHANGES

Proposed House Bill 17-1119 attempts to address payment for injured workers who do not have coverage through their non-compliant employer. HB 17-1119 is currently a proposed Bill, but is likely to be approved later this year. The Bill was introduced on January 20, 2017, and must still pass the State House and Senate, as well as be signed into law by the Governor.

Coverage:  The fund would cover claims occurring on or after January 1, 2019 that have been adjudicated compensable, where the employer has been determined uninsured and has failed to pay the full amount of benefits ordered. The fund does not cover a partner in a partnership or owner of a sole proprietorship, the director or officer of a corporation, a member of an LLC, the person who is responsible for obtaining workers’ compensation coverage and failed to do so, someone who is eligible for coverage but elected to opt out, or anyone who is not an “employee” under the terms of the Act.

Funding:  The fund is made up of the fines and other revenue collected by the Division that is specifically allocated to the fund, along with any gifts, grants, donations or appropriations. There is also a separate 25% paid to the fund based on benefit amounts owed by non-compliant employers.

Governance:  The fund is run by a board that includes the Director and four individuals representing each of the following: employers, labor organizations, insurers and a claimant attorney.  The board serves for a term of 3 years and may be reappointed with the exception of the initial board members. With regards to the initial board, one member shall serve for an initial term of three years, two members for a two-year term and one member for a one year term.  No one can serve more than three consecutive terms.  Benefits are to be paid at the ordinary rates. If the fund does not have enough money in the fund, the board can reduce the rates.  The board is unpaid.

Powers:  The fund has ordinary powers attendant to handling workers’ compensation claims.  Of interest, the fund has the power to intervene as a party in a case involving an uninsured employer, or other potentially responsible entity. Upon acceptance of the claim into the fund, a lien is created against any assets of the employer and its principles for the amount due as compensation. This lien has priority over all other liens except delinquent tax payment liens.  The lien can be perfected by filing in the appropriate court. Further, the fund becomes something akin to a secured creditor of any insolvent employer for amounts the fund determines may be needed to pay uninsured losses. Payment by the fund does not relieve the uninsured employer of payment obligations for benefits and the fund has the power to pursue any employer who defaults on those payments in District Court.

 

BOTTOM LINE

The proposed legislation creates a small safety net for injured workers of uninsured employers.  Given the ever-increasing costs of medical care, there is a valid question as to whether funding would be adequate to cover workers’ compensation benefits claimed by the injured workers.  Further, it will be interesting to see if respondents may be required to give notice to the fund in cases where liability is being adjudicated on a statutory employer issue. The fund may have a recognizable interest in such litigation, as the burden of paying workers’ compensation benefits would fall on the fund should there be a determination of no coverage. It is not unusual for a carrier or employer to settle potential statutory employer liability on a “denied” basis as opposed to proceeding to litigation, where adjudication might make statutory employer liability clear. The fund intervening in this type of case may prevent pre-adjudication settlement from occurring without some consideration being paid to the fund in the “denied” settlement as well.