Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Purportedly as a cost saving measure, the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board has closed its only Niagara County hearing location in Lockport. This denies convenient access for the thousands of Niagara County claimants who must now travel to Buffalo or Batavia to participate in the system that was initially established to address their needs as injured workers.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Niagara County had up to four hearing points: Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Wheatfield and Lockport. Thse have all been systematically eliminated until now there are none! Yet hearings continue to be held in Alleghany, Batavia and Elmira, areas less populated than all of Niagara County.
When you consider that the mayors of Niagara Falls and Lockport, and the Niagara County Legislature, have all indicated that public space could be made available for hearings at little or no cost, monetary savings cannot be the true explanation for this development. Additionally, it must be realized that this is not a tax or a budgetary issue. The Workers’ Compensation Board is funded through assessments on carriers and self-insured employers, not taxes.
It raises concerns on a number of levels when one party to the system controls the purse strings. After all, the hearing process itself puts claimants/claimants’ attorneys on opposite sides of the table from employers/carriers. Making it more difficult for claimants and their representatives to actively participate in the hearing process inures solely to the benefit of carriers and employers.
With “caps” now imposed on cases resulting in permanent disabilities, i.e. benefits are automatically suspended after a limited period of time, and with medication and procedures commonly used to address work-related injuries now severely constricted by the Medical Treatment Guidelines, claimants should be wary of anything that lessens their impact on issues affecting their own claims.
Niagara County workers and their union representatives should vocally and publicly protest the closing of the last Niagara County hearing point. The sign over the door at the Board still reads “Workers’ Compensation Board.” It should more accurately say “Employers/Carriers’ Protection Agency.”
In Niagara County, we don’t even have a door.William H. Cummings Jr. is an attorney who's been practicing workers' compensation law in Niagara County for 40 years.