Electricians and other skilled construction workers count on workman's compensation for support when injured. Kentucky legislators are trying to scale back the state's system, putting working families at risk. 

IBEW members in Kentucky joined with labor allies to put a stop to the state’s attempt to roll back unemployment benefits. The attack on working families would have had far-reaching consequences for members of the IBEW’s construction branch, in particular.

Skilled construction work sometimes dries up even in good economic times. That's why the IBEW and its allies successfully fought against an attempt to cut Kentucky's unemployment benefits.

In 2016, Republicans took complete control of Kentucky state government for the first time in nearly a century, and attacks on working families intensified, with right-to-work and a repeal of prevailing wage sailing through the one-party state government. But this time IBEW members and their allies sent a message:

“Enough is enough,” they said. Union members fought back against a bill that would have drastically cut back on unemployment benefits offered in the state. A watered-down version now is expected to pass and be signed into law that would keep eligibility at 26 weeks – in line with most other states – and not put a cap on a dollar amount as some GOP legislators sought.

“It boiled down to the fact that we flooded them with phone calls,” said former Louisville Local 369 Business Manager Bill Finn, who now serves as director of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council. “It impacted a lot of unions, but I think it impacted ours the most.”

The IBEW and other labor groups still are fighting against proposed changes in Kentucky’s workers’ compensation law, but the win in the unemployment compensation battle was a big one, Finn said.

The original legislation called for length of payments to be determined by the state’s unemployment rate, which would have cut it to 16 weeks and had a devastating effect on IBEW members working in construction. It also would have capped the maximum weekly benefit at its current amount unless it was exceeded by the seven states that border Kentucky.

The GOP majority passed a right-to-work law last year in one of its first order of business and it was signed into law by Gov. Matt Bevin. It wasn’t a surprise. The Republicans have a 63-37 advantage in the House and a 27-11 edge in the Senate.

But the proposal to cut unemployment benefits raised concern even among some GOP legislators. Kentucky’s economy has improved overall, but it still has some of the poorest counties in the nation, with unemployment at more than 12 percent in some places.

“I think kicking a worker while he’s unemployed got to the conscious of some of these legislators like right-to-work really didn’t last year,” Finn said.

The proposed cuts might have convinced members of the IBEW and other trade unions to give up their union membership and maybe even leave the industry, current Local 369 Business Manager Charlie Essex said. Throw in the fact that there’s a shortage of skilled construction workers not just in Kentucky, but nationally, and the impact could have been devastating.

“It would have killed us,” Essex said. “My biggest concern was guys leaving the construction industry for maintenance gigs because of the stability of the work. In construction, even in good times, there’s going to be days where there isn’t any work. If we lose those members, all the training they’ve had goes with it.”

The average weekly benefit paid to unemployed Kentucky workers last year was about $330, with a maximum of $448. Opponents noted the proposed change basically amounted to a lifetime cap.

“In effect, you’re freezing the rate,” Finn said. “You probably wouldn’t see an increase in our lifetime. The other seven states are competing to see who can go the lowest.’”

But as important as that victory was, another threat is looming before the Legislature adjourns on April 13. It is considering a bill that would put a 15-year cap on workers’ compensation payments from the date of the injury, even if someone suffered a permanent disability from an on-the-job accident.

The House passed a version of the bill last month with an amendment that allowed workers to re-apply for benefits after those 15 years are up. Supporters said it would make the state’s businesses more competitive, but opponents noted workers’ compensation insurance premiums paid by Kentucky employers already are dropping.

“This is about greed,” said Rep. Al Gentry, a Louisville Democrat who lost his arm in an accident years ago. Gentry said he has arthritis in his remaining arm because of increased use and will need medical care for the rest of his life.

Employers pay into workers’ compensation funds in every state. They not only provide a sense of security for their employees, but provide a buffer against lawsuits. Workers are barred from suing their employer or coworkers for negligence once they accept it.

“The burden of this medical liability will have been shifted directly back to them,” Gentry said of the 15-year cap. “And if they’re on Medicare or Medicaid at the time, it’s directly shifted back to the taxpayer.”

IBEW members in nearly every branch work in dangerous conditions, making the thought of being less able to rely on workmen’s compensation disturbing, Essex and others said. The increased costs also could trickle down to local unions and their signatory contractors, he said.

“It would put a strain on our benefits. We would have to help [injured workers] out, too. I can’t see letting someone get hurt at work and then let them run out of benefits,” he said.

The unrelenting attacks in Kentucky are bringing labor allies together, said Joe Dillow, president of Portsmouth, Ohio, Local 575, which has jurisdiction in part of the state. IBEW members have rallied at the Statehouse with public-school teachers who are protesting proposed cuts in the pension plan for publics employees, for instance.

Dillow and others are urging members to contact their legislators to vote against the workman’s compensation bill.

“The Democrats had control of the House for 100 years, and we had that wall that protected workers and their rights,” said Dillow, who lives in Kentucky. “It seems like now that the majority is gone, the other side is trying to get everything back from the last 100 years right now.”

These bills are “straight of the ALEC playbook,” Finn said, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that pushes anti-worker legislation in statehouses across the U.S.

“Our hope is that because they’ve come after working families so hard, they’ve kind of overplayed their hand,” he said. “Just about every group trying to improve people’s lives is aligned against them.”