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November 15, 2013

Oneonta workers' comp office to close

By Mark Boshnack Staff Report
The Daily Star

---- — The Oneonta customer service center of the Workers’ Compensation Board is one of eight offices scheduled to close today across the state, according to a spokeswoman for the agency. Local officials interviewed said they were opposed to the action.

The closure is part of an effort across the state for the last few years to keep costs under control, agency spokeswoman Rachel McEnyny said. By allowing claimants to participate in hearings by phone, they don’t have to leave their home, a method already used by many other states, she said.

Oneonta Social Security and workers’ compensation attorney Peter Hill said his understanding is that not all clients will have to travel to the remaining sites, including Binghamton, Norwich and Utica, but lawyers still do. Sometimes clients will want to be at the hearings and the distance may prevent that, he said, and if employers contest a claim, they will have to travel as well.

He said he and other lawyers had little notice of the changes — he learned about it through a union letter in September.

“We weren’t involved in the decision, it just came down,” he said. He said he complained to state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, who has gotten involved.

Seward said he learned about the problem this fall from local lawyers.

“I think this is a slap in the face to rural communities,” he said. He said he opposes to the closing and had three conference calls recently with Cuomo’s office about the situation. It will be a hardship for those that have to travel, he said.

Seward said he has had discussions about a no-cost site at the State University College at Oneonta. Officials have been open to the idea, but nothing has been finalized, he said.

Hearings over the phone are no way to assess the seriousness of injuries or the credibility of a claimant, he said.

“I’m hopeful the situation can be resolved,” he said.

The eight centers being closed had the least amount of hearings in the state, McEnyny said. The Oneonta office at 41-45 Dietz St. had 1,843 hearings in 100 days.

The closings were included in state’s 2013-14 budget as part of an effort to replace costly services and better meet the needs of taxpayers, she said. No state workers will lose their jobs in the process, which she said is estimated to save about $3 million over 10 years. That savings will be passed along to businesses that pay the cost of the program, she said.

The New York State Bar Association’s Workers’ Compensation Law Division Subcommittee said in a letter to the state Workers’ Compensation Board that the move will not improve the administration of justice in the system.

“While we appreciate every state agency is trying to reduce costs, the closing of these hearing points will shift any cost savings to the the workers and employers,” the letter said.