Press-Republican

March 13, 2013

Workers' Comp Board site closure planned

JOE LoTEMPLIO
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — A planned shutdown of the Plattsburgh Workers’ Compensation Board hearing site has local government leaders objecting.

“This is just not appropriate, and it does not seem necessary,” Clinton County Legislator Robert Butler (R-Area 6, Saranac) told the Press-Republican. “I hope they reconsider this.”

Butler is sponsoring a resolution at tonight’s legislature meeting that opposes the plan to shut down the Plattsburgh office, located at 23 Elm St., on May 1.

If it closes, people will have to drive to Saranac Lake for their Workers’ Compensation hearings.

“This is inexcusable, as far as I am concerned, and people should not  be inconvenienced like that,” Butler said.

HIGHER NUMBERS

Plattsburgh attorney John Niles, who represents many clients with Workers’ Compensation claims, said the move makes no sense. He wrote a letter to Jeffrey Fenster, executive director of the Workers’ Compensation Board, asking that the decision be reconsidered.

Niles said in his letter that between 120 and 150 claimants appear at hearings at the Plattsburgh site each month. Only about 60 to 80 people attend hearings each month at 41 St. Bernard St., Saranac Lake.

Niles said that if the Plattsburgh office is closed, people who live in the Northern Tier of Clinton County will have to travel as much as 150 miles round trip for hearings.

“As you can imagine, most Workers’ Compensation claimants struggle financially, as they are only receiving a portion of the wages that they were earning while working for their employer,” Niles wrote to Fenster.

“In many cases, insurance carriers controvert cases and claimants are receiving nothing in the way of lost wages, yet those same claimants will now be required to travel many miles without any reimbursement for mileage.”

SITE AMENITIES

The Plattsburgh office is equipped with hearing rooms for clients, their attorneys and the judges, and it has plenty of parking, while the Saranac Lake site is inadequate, Niles said.

“Saranac Lake has almost no space for attorneys and no space available for those attorneys to speak with clients privately. Ordinarily, conferences must be conducted outside the building,” he wrote.

“As you can imagine, that is particularly inconvenient when the temperature dips below 32 degrees, and in Saranac Lake, that happens about six months out of the year.”

CUTTING COSTS

The move to close the Plattsburgh office is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to retrench all state agencies in order to cut costs.

A spokesperson for the Workers’ Compensation Office in Albany declined to comment when contacted by the Press-Republican. Information on costs to operate each site were not available.

FINANCIAL BURDEN

State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) also wrote a letter to Fenster opposing closure of the Plattsburgh office.

“I have been contacted by several attorneys within my district and beyond who are affected by this change, out of concern not just for their own benefit but because they, too, are aware of the difficulties this closure will cause their current and future clients,” she wrote.

“Obviously, distance is a major factor; a majority of claimants live in closer proximity to the Plattburgh hearing location. You will be asking them to now drive farther, imposing a greater financial burden, as many residents with steady income are struggling to keep their gas tanks full.”

Little told Fenster that the roads that clients will have to travel to reach Saranac Lake are in poor condition, especially in the winter.

“I understand it would not be possible for you to know the details of every square mile within the state, and I appreciate your efforts in improving efficiency through consolidation; however, closing the Plattsburgh hearing office places an additional burden on residents in the northernmost part of the state and could create a potentially dangerous situation,” she wrote.

The legislature will vote on the resolution opposing the closure of the Plattsburgh site at 7 tonight in the Clinton County Government Center, Margaret Street, Plattsburgh.

Email Joe LoTemplio:jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com