States step up vocational comp coverage

More states are aiming to require workers compensation coverage for those enrolled in career apprenticeships and technical schools.

Most recently, Indiana, Oklahoma and Wyoming sought to join states where this coverage is required; California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee and Texas have passed legislation that calls on local education agencies to provide workers compensation coverage for students participating in work-based learning, according to the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

Safety educators and others familiar with the legislative trend say such regulations help bridge a gap. Opposition to legislation expanding workers compensation coverage generally comes down to cost, as insuring inexperienced workers in risky professions such as construction and manufacturing is typically expensive. A good safety program can help quell fears and potential claim activity, experts say.

“One of the barriers to work-based learning for secondary students is employers’ concerns about workers compensation and liability in the event of an injury to a student,” said Mary Taylor, industry training and development specialist with the Kentucky Department of Education based in Frankfort.

When Kentucky was starting its program for tech-ready apprenticeships for careers “lack of workers compensation insurance coverage proved to be a continued barrier in putting students on the job site,” Ms. Taylor said.

To overcome the persistent placement issues and to better provide students with career pathways into registered apprenticeship programs, Ms. Taylor created a program in partnership with staffing agency The Adecco Group. Through the program, students are on Adecco’s payroll and are covered by the company’s workers compensation insurance.

“It’s a standard workers comp policy,” said Susan Shemanski, Lawrenceville, Georgia-based vice president of risk management at Adecco. “Workers comp will cover anyone that works for us, regardless of what age they are.”

For students under the age of 18, hiring and placement proved to be particularly difficult, as insurers don’t let policyholders hire underage workers. Yet with Adecco as the employer of record, the Kentucky program was able to insure underage workers, Ms. Taylor said.

“They also fall under our strict safety guidelines,” she added. “We want to make sure that anybody that participates in the program is able to do so safely — we want them to learn but we want them to return home at the end of each day safely with no injuries.”

Adecco involves its human resources, risk and legal departments to ensure it is in compliance with child labor laws, Ms. Shemanski said. “We basically want to have a support system but also a system that holds the student accountable for learning through this process,” she said.

Since partnering with Adecco, Ms. Shemanski said, the program has recorded two minor injuries.

Safety educators and risk advisers say such emerging programs will help with the labor shortage and bridge the talent gap by educating and protecting the younger workforce in training.

In Indiana, Rep. Bob Behning, co-sponsor of H.B. 1094, which would provide workers compensation insurance for youth apprentices under the age of 18, said such coverage creates a pathway to employment while minimizing employer liability risk.

“As we have had discussions with a lot of employers, there is concern about the fact that those kids — because they are kids, they’re juniors — potentially have a negative impact on employers, comp, group insurance and/or liability,” Mr. Behning said.

Others say such training programs are at the heart of increasing workforce participation.

“We don’t have enough trained individuals to be employed in these professions,” said Georgi Popov, a professor in the safety sciences program at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg and an advisor to the American Society of Safety Professionals and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

“If businesses don’t have trained personnel, more likely they will go to another state, or companies will lose bids on big jobs.”

Enforcing stronger safety practices has helped manage worries over comp premium costs, said Sathy Rajendran, an associate professor and program director of the safety and health management program at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

“The business and the students do well, and premium goes down,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

“We definitely want to make the entrance into youth apprenticeships and work study to be as risk-free as possible for employers so that they see this as a potential pipeline for them as well as an opportunity,” Mr. Behning said.

“The intent of it is so that the employer can actually get a return on investment from this youth,” he said. “They may lose money in year one of the program, but by year two, the productivity of this student will exceed the cost, and it’s at lower cost than what they would have for an adult who is full-time employed.”

Results mixed for work-based learner comp bills

Legislation providing workers compensation coverage for work-based learners made its way through three state legislatures early this year, with poor results for most.

In Indiana, H.B. 1094 passed in both the state House and Senate and was signed into law on March 15. The law calls on the state Department of Education to enter into an agreement with employers to pay for workers compensation insurance coverage for students enrolled in a work-based learning course by no later than Dec. 31, 2022.

Oklahoma’s H.B. 2384, introduced in 2021, would provide the same workers compensation coverage to work-based learning employees and apprentices, both paid and unpaid, and included provisions on premium reductions of up to 5%. The bill died in committee hearings in this year’s legislative session, yet its sponsor, Rep. Kyle Hilbert, expects the issue to be taken up again next year.

In Wyoming, H.B. 0239 sought to broaden employment and apprenticeship opportunities, creating a workers compensation policy program in which student learners would be covered by employers. The bill died in the Senate in March.

This article was first published in Business Insurance.

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