Bartlett weighs cuts to workers’ comp payouts

The Great Seal of Bartlett, TennesseeSocial media lit up this week about one hot topic in Bartlett: Will the mayor and board of alderman dramatically reduce city employees’ workers’ compensation benefits?

The city is looking for solutions to a steep $200,000 increase in the city’s premium for workers’ compensation benefits this year, as well as higher costs for related policies and practices.

Two resolutions on the board’s July 22 agenda were designed to address that, proposing:

  • A lower compensation rate (probably two thirds of the employees’ average weekly wage) after the first seven days of a workers’ comp injury; the funds probably will be tax-free
  • An increase in the availability of temporary limited duty assignments

The pushback was strong and immediate on Facebook. Mayor Keith McDonald said he hopes all citizens engaged on this topic would attend the July 22 meeting to learn more. On Monday he also said he will ask the board to postpone a vote until the last board meeting in August to allow time for more public discussion and education.

The departments that have the most workers’ comp claims — police and fire — face higher injury risks than other city workers just because of the nature of their jobs, said Anna Stanford, a Bartlett resident and one of the early critics of the workers’ comp changes.

Previously the city’s workers’ comp benefits have been 100 percent for up to 90 days, Stanford said.

On Facebook, she wrote, “I just don’t feel it is appropriate to pass on this increase to Bartlett employees after passing on the healthcare premium increase of 30 percent-plus. Many of these employees depend on every penny of their paychecks. … I understand you’re trying to cut costs for the city, but when it’s at the cost of your own employees, I think it’s time to re-evaluate.”

Ariele Nicole Grilliot of Bartlett also wrote online, “The answer to reducing WC claims is increased training and increased accountability when safety policy is violated. That should be the starting point, not automatically slashing WC to the bare minimum. The job police and firefighters do is extremely dangerous and they took oaths to do them. They are going to perform the services required of them regardless. However, the risk of injury is far higher than other lines of work (thus the higher rate of injury). Suspects fight, fire burns, buildings collapse, and cars crash. An officer or fire professional can do everything right and still be horribly injured. When that inevitably happens and an extended period of recovery is required, a family should not have to be faced with losing a large percentage of their income and possibly having to seek financial assistance to make ends meet.”

McDonald explained the extent of the financial problem the city faces: He said a higher frequency of workers’ comp claims and higher payouts drove the premium increase.

In previous years, the city’s workers averaged about an 80 percent ratio of premiums to how much is paid out in claims, McDonald said. This year it jumped to more than 100 percent, with plenty of back strains and shoulder injuries in particular.

“Nothing’s changed except the possibility that people aren’t being as safety minded as they need to be,” he said.

The goal of changing the workers’ compensation benefits is to encourage employees to get back to work as soon as they are able, McDonald said. “If you are making just as much not working as you were working, where is the incentive to get back to work?”

He also emphasized that the lowered rate in workers’ comp benefits is just one of about five or six different things the city is considering to control costs, such as a new Safety Committee, an Employee Assistance Program and an annual physical assessment of the city’s public safety officers.

Some other options citizens suggested on Facebook included:

  • Increasing property tax by two cents
  • Exempting some groups of employees from the two-thirds benefits change
  • Creating a peer-review board to review how much the employee gets for his/her claim, depending on whether the employee followed proper procedures.

The city’s insurance carrier proposed the workers’ comp rate change to help Bartlett reduce claims and get premiums back to reasonable levels, McDonald said, McDonald said.

Some Bartlett residents spoke up online this week in support of the city’s proposed resolutions, but most, like Stanford, were critical.

She said, “I really don’t think some insurance company should be telling our board of mayor and aldermen what the best solution is.”

It’s been a difficult decision, and the board is continuing to look at options, McDonald said.

“We want our employees to be safe. We want them if they’re hurt to be cared for. So it’s finding that right balance,” he said. “Not everybody who files a worker’s comp claim is a freeloader, but not every claim that is filed couldn’t have been stopped. There appears to have been a number of things that happened that were preventable.”

He believes that people who compare this move to the recent uproar in Memphis over benefit changes are misinformed.

“This is nothing like Memphis. People work themselves up because of what they’ve seen in Memphis. We’re not approaching anything like that. We’re just talking about how we reduce the workers’ comp rate.”

He said other municipalities are facing similar issues, and Bartlett will examine those options for possible adoption. Collierville lets employees offset their one-third pay cut during a workers’ comp-related work absence by using sick days or personal days, McDonald said.

See resolutions 25-14 and 26-14 and the related policy details online at