While the state of California recently has been criticized by pro athletes for implementing a “millionaires tax,” it seems a number of stars have been taking advantage of the state’s other programs.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday in an investigative article that pro athletes have been awarded millions of dollars from the state’s workers’ comp program.
Over the last three decades, California’s workers’ compensation system has awarded millions of dollars in benefits for job-related injuries to thousands of professional athletes. The vast majority worked for out-of-state teams; some played as little as one game in the Golden State.
All states allow professional athletes to claim workers’ compensation payments for specific job-related injuries — such as a busted knee, torn tendon or ruptured spinal disc — that happened within their borders. But California is one of the few that provides additional payments for the cumulative effect of injuries that occur over years of playing.
A growing roster of athletes are using this provision in California law to claim benefits. Since the early 1980s, an estimated $747 million has been paid out to about 4,500 players, according to an August study commissioned by major professional sports leagues. California taxpayers are not on the hook for these payments. Workers’ compensation is an employer-funded program.
Now a major battle is brewing in Sacramento to make out-of-state players ineligible for these benefits, which are paid by the leagues and their insurers. They have hired consultants and lobbyists and expect to unveil legislation next week that would halt the practice.
“The system is completely out of whack right now,” said Jeff Gewirtz, vice president of the Brooklyn Nets — formerly the New Jersey Nets — of the National Basketball Assn.
The Times said the list includes Hall of Famer wide receiver Michael Irvin ($249,000), Terrell Davis ($199,000) and former NBA player Moses Malone ($155,000). How do pro athletes turn to California for such claims?
Conwell said that during his 11-year career, he underwent about 18 surgeries, including 11 knee operations. Now 40, he works for the NFL players union and lives in Nashville.
Hobbled by injuries, he filed for workers’ compensation in Louisiana and got $181,000 in benefits to cover his last, career-ending knee surgery in 2006, according to the Saints. The team said it also provided $195,000 in injury-related benefits as part of a collective-bargaining agreement with the players union.
But such workers’ compensation benefits paid by Louisiana cover only specific injuries. So, to deal with what he expects to be the costs of ongoing health problems that he said affect his arms, legs, muscles, bones and head, Conwell filed for compensation in California and won.
Even though he played only about 20 times in the state over his professional career, he received a $160,000 award from a California workers’ compensation judge plus future medical benefits, according to his lawyer. The Saints are appealing the judgment.
The crux of the issue is the state’s century old employer-funded $12-billion workers’ comp system. It allows anyone employed in California for any time to take advantage of work-related disabilities.
In recent years, many California workers’ compensation judges have held that any athlete who plays professional sports in the state ? no matter how briefly ? is eligible to receive benefits from employers for so-called cumulative trauma injuries. And because all these leagues have teams in the state, most of their athletes play in California, at least occasionally.
Encouraged by a small group of workers’ compensation lawyers who specialize in athletes’ cases, Conwell and other players seek benefits in California because it offers “a large payday at the end of a career,” said Todd Davis, vice president for legal affairs for the St. Louis Rams. “California is very jurisdictionally friendly, and in theory, they can collect more money in California than they could in other states and actually double-dip,” he said.
– Bill Bradley, contributing editor