Another national ranking and yet another smack-down for Louisiana but this time there are underlying political reasons for the state’s poor showing.
A report by 24/7 Wall Street shows that Louisiana is the ninth-worst state in which to be unemployed despite the state’s 10th lowest unemployment rate of 4.5 percent. (Mississippi, as it does in virtually every such ranking, is the worst in the nation, lending credence to Louisiana’s unofficial state motto: At least we’re not Mississippi.)
Of the worst 10 states in which to receive unemployment benefits, seven are in the South. Besides Louisiana and Mississippi, the worst 10 include Tennessee (10th worst), Georgia (8th), Virginia (7th), Arizona (6th), Illinois (5th), Kentucky (4th), Michigan (3rd), and Alabama (2nd worst).
And for those who believe those drawing unemployment are just lazy deadbeats, as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and a lot of politicians would have us all believe, consider this: only 24.3 percent of weekly wages are covered by Louisiana unemployment benefits, second lowest percentage in the nation.
And just so you know, when Gov. Bobby Jindal traipses all over the country speaking at select venues and appearing on carefully chosen television talk news shows to boast about Louisiana’s soaring economic growth, it’s interesting to note that the state’s one-year job growth of .7 percent, 11th lowest in the nation, tends to cast doubt on the governor’s self-serving claims of prosperity, happiness and security among Louisiana’s workers.
Another key point Jindal conveniently overlooks, omits, or simply conceals from the public is the fact that only 20 percent of the state’s unemployed are even receiving benefits, tied for seventh-lowest in the U.S. To help Jindal overcome his apparent weakness at math, that leaves 80 percent of the state’s unemployed with no benefits.
And if you believe the state’s treatment of the unemployed is shabby, let’s consider how that policy dovetails with the consideration given injured workers who dare apply for worker’s compensation. The two programs are heavily stacked against workers who are laid off or hurt.
And why is that? Well, during the 2013 legislative session, House Bill 303 by Rep. Herbert Dixon (D-Alexandria, more appropriately, DINO-Alexandria) was approved 94-11 in the House and 38-0 in the Senate and subsequently signed into law by Jindal as Act 39.
That bill made it considerably more difficult for applicants to appeal denials of their applications for unemployment benefits by squeezing the time frame in favor of employers.
The previous law required that notices be sent by certified mail and the applicant was given 15 days from receipt of the notice to file an appeal.
HB 303 changed the notification method by deleting the certified mail requirement and started the 15-day clock on the day the notice was mailed or electronically transmitted. The bill further shortened the time for the appeal tribunal to mail a “notice to appear for a hearing” from 10 days to seven.
This year, HB 819 (which thankfully, failed to make it out of committee) was a particularly ominous bill from the standpoint of workers who are laid off.
That bill, by Rep. Joseph Lopinto (R-Metairie), would have presumed that if an employer “discharges and employee and then replaces the employee quickly, the employee was discharged with cause,” and thus ineligible for unemployment benefits.
That’s pretty heavy-handed even for the most ardent opponent of employee rights.
And while there are the periodic legislative attempts to weaken unions, dilute workers compensation laws and curtail unemployment benefits, most of the more subtle, under-the-radar efforts come in through the back door, seldom detected by those affected until it’s too late.
Take, for example, the March 5, 2013, order of Louisiana Office of Workers’ Compensation (OWC) director and chief judge (at the request of OWC’s bill review company Qmedtrix of Portland, Oregon) which transferred 45 pending cases then split between two workers’ compensation judges in the Lake Charles District to Judge Shelly Dick.
Judge Dick was appointed ad hoc workers’ compensation judge in 2008 by then OWC Director Chris Broadwater (now a state representative and Vice Chairman of the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee) and whose name will crop up again and again.
On the face of the order, the order carried no special significance—until one began to peel back the layers that revealed:
- Judge Dick had already been nominated and confirmed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for a federal judgeship. In other words, the order would transfer the 45 cases to a judge that OWC knew full well would be leaving in short order.
- OWC made it clear at the time that an ad hoc judge would hear the cases whenever Judge Dick moved to the federal bench and the only person mentioned at the time was attorney Amanda Clark, the former law partner of then-OWC Director Chris Broadwater.
- The OWC order also transferred cases to the law firm of (ahem) Forrester & Dick (yes, the firm in which Shelly Dick was a partner), even though the law firm represented clients who were defendants in some of the 45 cases.
- Neither of the two judges to whom the 45 cases were originally assigned issued or signed the transfer order.
- Broadwater resigned as OWC director in 2010 and returned to the law firm of Forrester & Dick.
- In 2011, Broadwater was elected to the Louisiana House and in 2012, resigned from Forrester & Dick whereupon he was retained by Qmedtrix to assist in the defense of its Louisiana cases involving Qmedtrix’s re-pricing of workers’ compensation outpatient bills based on “usual and customary” charge reductions.
- By November of 2012, rumors began to surface that Qmedtrix and Broadwater were meeting with Broadwater’s successor, OWC Director Wes Hataway in an effort to get the cases stayed or funneled to a more favorable judge. Broadwater would admit (on his state ethics disclosure forms, no less) that the meetings did, in fact, occur: “Met with Director of OWC discussing process of resolving disputes over medical billing.” Altogether, Broadwater admitted to meeting with Hataway “three or four times” in person and speaking with him “10 or 15 times” on the phone—all while billing Qmedtrix $275 per hour.
Such meetings are known in the legal realm as “ex parte” meetings, a Latin term meaning done by, or on the application of one party alone.
And though Clark ultimately was never appointed to ad hoc judge, while she was still under consideration for that post, she attended a trial in Lafayette in January of 2013 presided over by Dick, her law partner. That case involved unpaid medical bills for physician-dispensed prescriptions and the defendant was LUBA Workers’ Comp.
In other words, LUBA’s case was tried by a judge whose law firm had been hired by LUBA but neither the court, Clark, nor LUBA disclosed Forrester& Dick’s representation at the trial.
“The Amanda Clark-LUBA connection is troubling,” said attorneys for plaintiff Christus Health Southwest Louisiana, because Christus Health’s legal counsel currently had pending more than 50 provider claims involving LUBA, and “LUBA, like Mr. Broadwater (who also represented LUBA) apparently believes it is entitled to engage in improper ex parte communications with the OWC director in relation to pending cases.”
Broadwater testified by deposition that Hataway, on Nov. 21, 2012, even sought his opinion as to whether the Hataway has the authority to stay the “usual and customary” cases and Broadwater advised him that he could. That meeting took place in Hataway’s office, according to court documents. Also present besides Broadwater, who attended on behalf of Qmedtrix, was Doug Cochran of the Stone Pigman law firm (Qmedtrix’s attorney), and representatives of Qmedtrix who attended by telephone.
Following that meeting, Cochran wrote Hataway a “Dear Wes” letter on Nov. 28 in which he outlined “the most efficient manner to proceed,” which included an order staying all claims procedures and having all the cases heard by a single judge. “Once these matters are stayed, we look forward to mediation,” Cochran said.
Mediation after claimants had all their cases stayed with no ability to more their claims forward would be of decided advantage to Qmedtrix.
Cochran’s letter continued: “Once the cases (past and future) have all be docketed with a single judge, the next step is to provide him/her the proper tools to resolve the cases at the mean of usual and customary.”
This meant that not only would the cases be transferred to a single judge as requested, but Qmedtrix also was suggesting that Hataway actually instruct the OWC hand-picked judge what evidence to consider and how to rule.
“We look forward to the stay being issued at the earliest opportunity so that the dockets of the OWC courts can be cleared of the UC (usual and customary) issue. Matters such as these UC cases are more adequately handled by experts rather than after contrary court opinions,” the Cochran letter said.
“Qmedtrix takes the position that medical provider claimants should have their underpayment claims decided by Wes Hataway and Qmedtrix rather than the court system,” Christus Health said.
Broadwater, in his deposition admitted that he was aware that his client Qmedtrix was involved in the usual and customary litigation before OWC at the time the ex parte discussions took place.
“A search of the entire Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act and the OWC Hearing Officer Rules reveals that there is no legal authority for the OWC director to either stay or transfer pending workers’ compensation claims,” Christus claims, adding that state statute, “which is the only statute addressing the transfer of OWC cases, makes it clear that the workers’ compensation judge (not the director) may transfer cases with the consent of the parties.”