Tennessee employers, you’re warned: Comply with the Workers’ Compensation Law, or be prepared to face serious consequences.
The Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation is making changes to its Compliance Program. The Bureau’s efforts include appointing new leadership, pursuing new initiatives and hiring additional staff to achieve its goals.
As of Oct. 1, Amanda Terry now serves as the Bureau’s Director of Compliance.
Terry, an attorney, said that going forward, the Compliance Program will now aggressively check construction worksites to verify that the employer has insurance. Employers who don’t will be assessed a penalty.
This is in line with Public Act 344, which took effect on May 9 when Governor Bill Haslam signed it into law, Terry explained. The new law authorizes the Bureau to assess penalties for Certificate of Insurance on jobsite violations ranging from $50 to $5,000.
“Historically, the Bureau has seen a large volume of workplace injuries stemming from the construction industry. So it makes a lot of sense for the law and the Bureau to focus on the construction industry,” Terry said. “Plus, it’s very timely, given all the new construction – residential and commercial ̶ in cities like Nashville.
“The goal is that anytime we drive by a construction zone, we’ll feel good knowing those workers are covered.”
The Compliance Program will also step up its efforts to ferret out employers who are required to purchase workers’ compensation insurance but fail to do so. Generally, any employer with five or more employees must purchase insurance, but construction service providers must have coverage even if they employ only one person.
The Compliance Program will additionally continue to crack down on employers who misclassify employees as self-employed or independent contractors or who misrepresent to insurance companies the nature of the employees’ duties in an attempt to lower premiums.
As of Sept. 22, the Program already collected $358,600 in penalties for the most recent fiscal year starting July 1, 2017.
Another new, related priority is speeding up the pace of collection, Terry said.
She noted that a helpful tool toward that end is a new database that enables any compliance staff to “get a quick overall picture” of an investigation. Previously, information was scattered among individuals and in varying formats. The database will be useful for investigations involving coverage, too, Terry said.
The Compliance Program also plans to make greater educational outreach efforts for the state’s Hispanic and Latino communities. The language barrier, educational levels and immigration status tend to prevent them from pursuing their cases. “We want them to know we’re here, what we do, and how we can help. And we want them to know that the Workers’ Compensation Law applies to all Tennesseans,” Terry said.
The Bureau plans to hire more Compliance investigators as soon as possible. But, as always, the focus will be on efficiency and “lean” operations, as well as building a cohesive team with a shared vision.
Terry is originally from Florence, Ala. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Alabama and her juris doctor from Mississippi College School of Law. Before joining the Bureau, Terry was in private practice in Knoxville with a concentration in workers’ compensation, general liability and criminal law. She became a mediator with the Bureau in 2015 in the Nashville office and joined the Compliance Program earlier this year as an attorney.
The Bureau’s administrator, Abbie Hudgens, said, “I’m pleased to announce Amanda’s promotion. In her short time working in Compliance, she has already made many valuable, measurable contributions.
“Under Amanda’s leadership, the Compliance Program will make an increasingly positive difference in the Bureau’s initiative to reduce the number of employers who deny their employees their legal workers’ compensation rights.”
Tips for Employers’ Counsel
So, your client is facing a penalty assessment from the Compliance Program? Here’s advice from Amanda Terry, the new Compliance Program Director.
Do your homework. A summary of the applicable statutes and regulations is available at the Bureau’s website. This is a niche area; you’ve got to know the rules. For example, many people don’t realize that the burden of proof is on the employer not the state.
Follow the Rules. Cooperate with investigators and Bureau attorneys; comply with informal requests for information and formal discovery. You’ll only end up costing your client more in attorney fees if you fight a losing battle. Also, the Bureau has discretion regarding the amount of the penalty assessed and tends to go easier on cooperative employers.