Slips slow shift to private workers' comp

By Steve Korris | May 19, 2006

Jane Cline

CHARLESTON – For 40 years, Linda Tracy kept the payroll straight at the Clay County Board of Education.

But when she left her post to fight cancer, the board fumbled away its workers' compensation insurance.

"We should have had a better backup plan," said administrative assistant Kenneth Tanner. "Blame it on me."

Hundreds of slips such as this continue throwing sand in the gears of West Virginia's historic shift from public to private workers compensation.

A new private company, BrickStreet, opened for business Jan. 1, after the West Virginia Workers Compensation Commission shut down.

West Virginia employers must carry workers compensation, and they cannot buy it from anyone but BrickStreet.

At the outset BrickStreet refused coverage to about 1,300 employers who still owed money to the old commission.

Another 752 employers emerged from the old commission in good standing but did not buy BrickStreet policies.

About 600 paid the first premium but not the second, due March 31.

BrickStreet gave the last group all of April as a grace period. On May 1, it reported them to state insurance commissioner Jane Cline.

Cline's staff joined BrickStreet staff in trying to reach everyone on the list. West Virginia newspapers printed local defaults.

National companies Best Buy Stores, Budget Rent a Car, Houghton-Mifflin and Pitney-Bowes made the list.

Pitney-Bowes spokesman Matt Broder, in Stamford, Conn., said the company received a check for a surplus from the old commission and a bill from BrickStreet.

He said, "A payroll clerk saw that the bill was less than the check so she figured, 'I just won't cash the check.'"

He said it was ironic because Pitney-Bowes preaches a gospel that mail stream management can avoid embarrassment. He said, "This is a classic case."

He said the company has a couple dozen employees in West Virginia.

Best Buy spokeswoman Dawn Bryant, in Richfield, Minn., said May 17 that she would check on the default.

On May 18 she said, "Thank you for calling us because there was an administrative error." She said, "No one had told us."

She said everything was in motion to take care of it on May 19. She said Best Buy owns stores in Huntington and Granville, near Morgantown.

In Charleston, attorney Chris Moffatt made the list. "It's no big deal," he said. "I was out of town. We will get back on board."

Chab Inc., and Taste of Asia Inc., appeared on the list with addresses in care of Damron's Bookkeeping of Charleston. A person at Damron's said she paid. She would not give her name.

At Marshall County Search Team in Moundsville, team leader Tom Stanley said, "I was not aware of it and I do want my people covered."

He said the team is a very small group of volunteers.

At Clay County Board of Education, Tanner said he found out that Tracy would have handled it if not for her absence after cancer treatments.

"She is a fine lady and she has been a warrior," he said. "She is an inspiration to everyone."

He said there might be a penalty. He said, "We were hoping that under the circumstances that there wouldn't be."

In Ripley, at VFW Post 5501, the penalty cost almost as much as the insurance.

"To get back in was a $384 penalty fee on a $500 payment," said post manager Bob Cline.

It could have hurt worse. Insurance commissioner Cline can penalize defaults up to $10,000. Penalties go to the state general fund, not to BrickStreet.

Cline holds another hammer. For employers who hold state licenses or permits, she can ask agencies to revoke licenses or permits.

If a worker suffers an injury while the employer lacks workers compensation, the state pays the claim from an uninsured fund.

Cline can then seek to recover assets from the employer. She can recover not only from a business but also from its owners and directors personally.

Since the Jan. 1 shift, Cline has accepted seven injured workers into the uninsured fund. She said an eighth applicant is under investigation.

She said she has referred two applicants to her fraud unit. She said she could give no information about them.

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