North Carolina employers’ workers’ comp coverage to become public again

The state of North Carolina, like all other U.S. states, relies on its workers' compensation system to compensate employees for work-related injuries and occupational diseases, and to compensate the loved ones of those who die of these causes. Normally, workers' comp benefits are paid out regardless of whether anyone was at fault for the harm, and the employer is almost always immune from a lawsuit for the incident.

Smooth operation of the system depends on compliance with the legal requirement that employers covered by the system (all but the very smallest) maintain workers' compensation insurance to cover employee claims. When an employer is insured against workers' comp claims, payout of benefits to its injured workers with valid claims should be smooth and timely.

In April 2012, the Raleigh-based News & Observer reported that "as many as 30,000" state employers were shirking their obligation to be insured, potentially depriving injured workers of workers' compensation benefit checks.

Three months later, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill making the information about whether a particular employer had adequate insurance private and no longer publicly available. Previously the data had been collected by the North Carolina Rate Bureau, an insurance industry group, and shared with the North Carolina Industrial Commission, the state agency responsible for administering the workers' compensation system, which made it publicly available online.

Apparently, a Florida company tried to use the data for commercial purposes, to which the Rate Bureau objected, resulting ultimately in the new bill making the data private. However, this set off a firestorm of objection because consumers and workers were no longer able to check independently whether particular employers were carrying their required insurance.

Commentators noted that an average citizen should be able to check to see if his or her employer or potential employer carries appropriate workers' comp insurance, rather than having to put him or herself in the potentially damaging position of asking the employer directly.

In mid-December, the interested parties - the Rate Bureau, Industrial Commission and the North Carolina Press Association - met at the request of state legislators and agreed that the July law should be reversed, and that the data should indeed become public for consumers once again, as it is in some other states. Sen. Harry Brown, R-Jacksonville, has agreed to introduce the measure in 2013 and opposition is not expected.

In the meantime, a legislative task force is focusing on further reform that could crack down on employers who try to misclassify employees as independent contractors to save on workers' comp costs.

Anyone in North Carolina with a work injury or disease should consult with an experienced workers' compensation attorney to understand what rights and remedies are available, especially if the employer is suspected of not carrying legally mandated insurance coverage.