|Author||Subject: Labor Secretary failed to insure worker at business|
|Advocate|| Posted At 20:38:38 01/14/2000
Labor Secretary failed to insure worker at business
By PETER SHINKLE
Advocate business writer
As a state representative, Garey Forster sponsored an overhaul of worker's compensation laws in 1988, for the first time requiring businesses to provide worker's compensation insurance and subjecting them to penalties if they fail to do so.
Now, as the state's secretary of labor since 1997, Forster is responsible for enforcing that law.
But in 1994, when a woman working at Forster's private printing business had a heart attack on the job, Forster had no worker's compensation insurance to pay for her care, records show.
Even though state officials became aware of a claim and a lawsuit filed by the employee, Forster apparently was never penalized for failing to comply with the law.
Charles Davoli, an attorney who represents injured workers, said Forster's failure to provide the insurance is "outrageous," particularly given Forster's previous 14-year tenure as a member of the House Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations.
It also raises doubts about whether Forster is enforcing the law that requires employers to provide worker's compensation insurance, Davoli said.
"What kind of confidence can we have that this administration is going to enforce those provisions?" he said.
The number of companies penalized for failure to have insurance has dropped sharply in recent years. But the Department of Labor says that drop is due not to lax enforcement but to increased compliance with the law by employers.
Forster, whom Gov. Mike Foster appointed labor secretary in August 1997, acknowledged his failure to provide the coverage.
"I got behind for a while, and talked to my insurance agent, and I think some stuff might have lapsed," he said.
"We carried it for a number of years. I don't remember exactly when. We, like most businesses, went through some up-and-down times," he said.
Forster declined to comment on whether his failure to have the insurance was intentional or inadvertent.
Forster said he later sold the business, around early 1996.
Forster also said he has fully supported the department in enforcing the law since his appointment.
"I have not in any way, by my actions or inactions, suggested to any employee of the Department of Labor that the laws which we are empowered to enforce be ignored," he said.
As labor secretary, Forster, a Republican, said he has tried to make the Labor Department and its employees understand that they serve not only workers but also employers.
He has clashed repeatedly with Davoli and other representatives of injured workers over personnel and rules of the state worker's compensation system.
In Forster's worker's compensation case, Hazel DiStefano testified in an administrative law court trial in 1996 that she had worked for Forster since he and his wife purchased Direct Mail Enterprises Inc. in 1988. She worked at his printing shop in New Orleans.
On Feb. 28, 1994, DiStefano walked upstairs to a storage area to get some flyers for Forster's legislative campaign when she began to feel "stuffy," developed chest pains and began to pass out.
An ambulance took DiStefano to the hospital where she was treated for a heart attack, according to her testimony. DiStefano later returned to work for Forster for two weeks, but stopped after again experiencing chest pains, she said.
Forster refused to pay for her care, so DiStefano filed a worker's compensation claim with the state.
As the case proceeded, Thomas Ruli, an attorney for Forster, told DiStefano's attorneys in June 1996 that the company had a "lack of funds available in the event your client prevails at trial."
Two months later, Ruli filed a document in the case saying there "was no worker's compensation insurance policy in effect" on the day DiStefano had her heart attack.
Ruli also argued that, under worker's compensation law, Forster would not have to pay for a heart attack suffered on the job.
DiStefano eventually dropped Forster from the case.
Instead, she pursued her claim against the state because Forster also employed her as his legislative assistant. The Legislature had paid about half of her annual salary of $20,000 per year.
The state eventually won the dispute when a worker's compensation judge in the Labor Department denied DiStefano's claim.
Over the past five years, the number of companies like Forster's failing to provide worker's compensation coverage has apparently dropped.
The state cited 1,034 companies in 1993 for failure to have insurance. But over the next five years, that number fell by 95 percent, to just 47 companies, according to the department's Office of Workers' Compensation (OWC).
In the same period, the number of companies penalized for failure to provide the coverage plummeted by 98 percent, from 200 to 5.
Wayne Knight, audit director for OWC, said the reason for the decline is that employers are complying with the law.
Knight said that after the state adopted the mandatory coverage law in 1988, officials were unsure how to enforce the law. Then, in 1993, OWC sent questionnaires to every employer in the state, about 80,000 in all, he said.
After that, the state sent similar inquiries to groups of employers, such as accounting firms and law firms.
"Since then, people have their coverage and pretty much keep it up," he said.
It is unknown whether Forster -- or any other specific employer -- was among those cited or penalized for failure to carry worker's compensation insurance.
State law exempts such records from being released under the state public records law, Knight said. Even workers wanting to check up on a prospective employer's insurance record cannot do so, he said.
Forster said he doesn't think he was ever cited for failure to have worker's compensation insurance.
He also said he does not recall getting the worker's compensation questionnaire the Labor Department sent out in 1993, the year before DiStefano had her heart attack.