One of the most curious loopholes in the NFL/NFLPA relationship flows from the concept of workers’ compensation benefits. The labor deal allows players to pursue state-administered payments for injuries suffered at work, even though the labor deal provides them with a clear right to ongoing pay in the wake of serious injuries.
For the players, it’s the ability to double dip. For the teams, it’s the ability to funnel cash to employees in a way that is at least partially subsidized by the government. (Even in states where all of the workers’ compensation benefits are paid by the employer, the mechanism for resolving the claims is publicly funded.)
In Louisiana, a fight has emerged at the legislative level regarding the calculation of workers’ compensation benefits. The Saints and the NFL want the players’ benefits to be determined based on the players’ earnings at the time of the injury. The players (including Drew Brees) and the NFLPA want the players’ benefits to be determined based on the average annual salary, projecting those earnings into the future and (for injuries suffered from March through early September) encompassing the players’ regular-season game checks.
But the issue isn’t a new one. Saints outside counsel Chris Kane explained to PFT by phone on Saturday morning that the dispute initially arose via the litigation process in 2000. With one exception, all cases decided by an Administrative Law Judge and then finalized by a three-person appeal panel resulted in a conclusion that the benefits paid are determined by the wages earned at the time of the injury. The Louisiana Supreme Court consistently has declined opportunities to put the issue to rest by providing what would be (or at least should be) the final word on how benefits are calculated.
Starting in 2010, a lawyer who represents employee interests opted to pursue a different strategy, introducing a bill to the Louisiana legislature that would have overturned the prevailing judicial rulings. The Saints and the league countered with their own bill, and that bill currently has gathered steam.
Currently, the bill that would limit benefits to earning at the time of the injury has been passed by the House, and it will be considered by the Senate Labor and Industry Committee on Thursday, May 22. If the bill makes it to the Senate floor and passes via a formal vote, a harmonized version of the House and Senate Bills will be tendered to Governor Bobby Jindal for signature or veto.
The NFLPA has mobilized to beat the bill. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has spoken out against it, and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has sent an email to agents suggesting that they “consider the Saints’ efforts given your representation of our players and the advice you would have to give to any free agent player considering an opportunity to play for the Saints.”
Kane emphasized that the effort would simply codify the prevailing rulings from the appeals courts that have addressed the issue. If the bill doesn’t become law, the current precedent from the court system would provide for benefits based on earnings at the time of the injury. Kane also pointed out that, for players who suffer serious injuries in the preseason or training camp, they still get their full salary for the year under the labor deal.
The problem arises from the inability to know with certainty that a player injured in the offseason or training camp would have made the team and earned his much higher regular-season wages. For some, like quarterback Drew Brees, it’s a given that he would still have made the roster and received $10.75 million in base pay. For plenty of players on the current roster, however, the reality is that they won’t make the team and won’t earn the regular-season salary and thus shouldn’t get workers’ compensation benefits based on pay they’ll never actually earn.
A fair compromise would seem to be the creation of a system that requires the Saints to designate in March (and possibly to update monthly) a certain number of players as likely to make the 53-man roster. Those players, if injured, would get benefits based on the wages they’re due to earn in the coming season. The rest would get benefits based on their specific wages earned at the time of the injury.
That would be the best outcome under these specific circumstances — which means it’s the one least likely to actually happen.