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Keep Workers' Comp Voluntary, Abbott Says

Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said he wants to keep the workers' compensation system voluntary in Texas. Abbott said giving employers the choice has helped make Texas an economic powerhouse.

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Texas is the only state that doesn’t require private employers to carry insurance for workplace injuries and fatalities, and Attorney General Greg Abbott signaled Tuesday that he wants to keep it that way if elected governor. 

While some have called for reforms to the voluntary workers’ compensation law, Abbott said allowing private employers to decide what’s best for them has helped make Texas an economic powerhouse.

“There are several things that have led to Texas growing jobs more than any other state,” he said. “One was the reform that allowed employers to choose whether or not they were going to purchase workers’ compensation insurance.”

The campaign of Abbott’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, called workers’ compensation “essential” but remained noncommittal about whether it should ever be mandatory for certain sectors of the private economy.

Since the early 1900s, Texas has let employers decide what’s best for them. A Texas Tribune investigation published this week detailed what can happen to workers who sustain injuries on the job in Texas, the only state that doesn’t require private employers to carry the state-regulated insurance or a private alternative. In many cases the workers are left to fend for themselves or rely on charities and taxpayers to pay for their care.

More than half a million Texas workers have no occupational benefits at all. Others have private plans, but those aren’t regulated by the state and can leave employees or their families vulnerable after a work injury or fatality. 

Abbott noted that employers that carry workers’ compensation gain immunity from negligence lawsuits, so employees who aren’t covered by it can sue their companies when they get hurt at work.

“The system has promoted more job growth while at the same time allowing employers to make the risk-reward decision that’s in their best interest,” Abbott said.

As the Tribune investigation found, however, workers in some cases recover little to nothing when they are injured while working for uninsured employers. The family of Austin roofer Angel Hurtado, who fell to his death in 2004, tried to sue. But the contractor disappeared after the accident, and seven lawyers declined to take the case, his family said.

“You’re coming up with some specific hypotheticals I can’t respond to, because a lot of times there are people to sue,” Abbott said. “I can just give you the opposite of what you said.”

The Davis campaign was asked about the senator’s views on the unique, voluntary system for workplace insurance in Texas. Spokesman Zac Petkanas said the workers’ compensation insurance is “essential both to worker safety and the financial interests of employers.”

“That's why Wendy Davis has worked to maximize workers' compensation coverage by supporting legislation to strengthen protections for critical professions and for our most dangerous industries,” he said, adding that Davis would work as governor to “implement the protections that businesses and our workers need.” 

The campaign declined to elaborate.

On another issue related to the workers’ compensation system, the contrast between the two campaigns could be seen more clearly.

Abbott, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, authored a 1998 decision, The Texas Mexican Railway Co. v. Lawrence P. Bouchet, that cleared the way for employers that don’t carry workers’ compensation to terminate injured workers without fearing a state retaliatory firing lawsuit. It’s still illegal for employers to discriminate against a worker for pursuing an injury claim inside the workers’ compensation system. But the Bouchet decision removed that prohibition for employers that opt out of it.

Petkanas said Davis would work with the Legislature to “restore the basic legal protections that Texans lost under the Bouchet ruling.” 

Abbott, who was speaking to reporters at an informal press conference Tuesday, did not directly answer a question about what he would do to ensure that people working for employers outside the workers’ compensation system aren’t targeted for dismissal after a workplace injury.

“Texas is a state that is a right-to-work state, and that means, among other things, that you can be an employee at will,” he said. “And an employer has the right to be able to terminate an employee for any reason whatsoever.”

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