CANTON — Attorneys, politicians and labor leaders are trying to persuade the state to reopen a workers’ compensation hearing center that closed in Canton last year or to at a minimum allow teleconferencing.
“I certainly hope they come back with a solution for St. Lawrence County. St. Lawrence County should have the same opportunities as other residents in the state,” state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said. “I understand that everyone needs to look at cutting down spending. At the same time, residents of rural areas are still entitled to the same services. It ends up falling on the same people. That really disenfranchises those people.”
Last October, the state announced it was shutting down eight offices, including one on Court Street, used for workers’ compensation hearings as a way to cut costs. The centers are hearing sites for injured workers contesting denials of compensation claims. Without the Canton center, workers have to travel longer distances or appear by telephone to argue their cases.
Those who used to go to Canton are assigned to centers in either Watertown or Saranac Lake.
“Our clients must now generally drive at least an hour to get to a hearing, at their own expense and necessitating the working claimants to take more time off work without being compensated for the time off,” said attorney Genelle J. Bayer, of Lekki, Hill, Duprey & Bhatt, Canton. “We have hearings many more days per week than before, and often have to drive three hours round trip for only one or two short hearings. There are times when there are several hearings scheduled hours apart, leaving significant down time away from the office. There are problems with getting double-booked in Watertown and Saranac Lake.”
Ms. Ritchie said she has heard from constituents that the hardship is real.
“With the winter we had this past year, many times it was virtually impossible to get to Watertown or Saranac Lake,” she said.
Ms. Ritchie said she opposed the closing of the Canton center when it was first proposed.
The Central Trades and Labor Council was also against the closure because of the substantial inconvenience, President Ronald P. McDougall said.
“It affects all workers,” he said. “We’re very much interested in making some progress in this regard.”
Attorney Preston C. Carlisle, Carlisle Law Firm, Ogdensburg, has written a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“The situation is grotesque and in many ways almost impossible and terribly unjust for claimants,” he wrote. “Something needs to be done to correct this terrible injustice. The simple answer is to reopen the Canton hearing center. It is still vacant and it can be reopened without any difficulty and it can be in operation again in a very short period of time if the Workers’ Compensation Board would only make the determination that it should be reopened.”
The only advantage to the closure of the Canton site is that attorneys and workers are now more freely permitted to attend some hearings by telephone, Ms. Bayer said.
“Sometimes it is even less travel time for the claimants than when they came to the Canton hearing site,” she said. “When we can appear from our office, we can also use office technology to draft and fax written stipulations.”
If nothing else, Ms. Ritchie said, she is working to have the Workers’ Compensation Board allow teleconferencing from a Canton site, possibly at SUNY Canton.
“They were going to look at the situation,” she said. “This would be a great alternative. It’s a potential solution that shouldn’t cost a lot of extra resources.”
Mrs. Ritchie said she is also looking at drafting a bill that would require the availability of teleconference hearings in the county.