The latest Louisiana Legislature is now in place for a special session to solve the state’s budget crisis. Ahead of the 2016 regular session which begins March 14th, Senator Neil Riser (R – Columbia), the new Chairman of the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, found time to sit down with Louisiana Comp Blog and discuss his priorities, goals and experience as he takes on the leadership role.
Comp Blog: Tell us about background, professionally and personally.
Senator Riser: My family, on my mother’s side, was in the timber business – they were lumberjacks. So when I was fourteen I started working in the woods, logging. I did that all the way through high school, weekends, holidays, summers, and all the way through college. When I graduated college [with a B.A. in Business Management from Northeast Louisiana University in 1984] the ceremony was on Saturday and I was back in the woods on Monday. At the time, the timber business was booming.
My father died when I was 22, on March 4th, 1985. On his side, we’re in the mortuary business [Riser Funeral Homes]. His father came to Caldwell Parish in 1933 and built the funeral home there. I took over that business and started running it after my Dad passed. You grow up pretty fast in that situation and I’ve been in business for myself ever since. I’ve been active in the Caldwell Bank and Trust, Chairman of that board in the past, prior to getting elected, and I’m still a board member there currently. I’m also a quarter partner in Limousines Unlimited in West Monroe.
Comp Blog: Have you encountered and learned more about workers’ comp insurance and the comp system in Louisiana from these business interests?
Senator Riser: All these businesses have different aspects, but I learned a lot more about workers’ comp from the limousine business. Livery companies have a high turnover rate, and we have significantly more claims from that company than from my other interests.
Comp Blog: How has the course of your career in the Legislature proceeded?
Senator Riser: When I got to the Legislature [in 2008], I served on Labor. Steve Scalise was a newly elected member out of the House and he chaired Labor then. Steve chaired that for three or four weeks prior to getting elected to Congress, and because I was Vice-Chairman, Joel Chaisson, the Senate President at the time, made me Chair. During that time we did a lot of workers’ comp reform – return to work issues, Second Injury Fund. And as Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Chair, I actually handled the Second Injury Fund renewal legislation again on the floor. So this is really my return to Labor Chairman.
Comp Blog: So I suppose you were glad to see the legislation in last year’s session removing the sunset provision from the Second Injury Fund?
Senator Riser: Yes, definitely. In my opinion, it has been a very successful program and one that employers can and should utilize. Sometimes, there are just those injuries where it’s really tough for a worker to get a job afterwards. The Second Injury Fund provides a service and encouragement in that way.
Comp Blog: Do you have any priorities yet in your role as Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Chairman? Could significant workers’ comp reform be on the table?
Senator Riser: As of right now I haven’t seen any legislation that’s been drafted on that, so until that comes down I don’t have any priorities set. The thing is, there’s always a lot of talk, always a lot of conceptual ideas from industry and other sources. Until it gets into the form of a bill, on pieces of technical legislation like [the Medical Director position or vocational rehabilitation], there really isn’t anything to be done. Technical legislation really has to be structured right, and there are a lot of opinions when it comes to that. When we worked on the comp reforms in the past, that was all technical as well and, if successful, we can get employees back to work, but there’s a road to get to the best legislation. Anything to enhance the program, or tweak something and make it better – I want to see it. And I’m always going to be in agreement with measures that make [the workers’ comp system] more efficient.
Comp Blog: Back to your work experience growing up. Logging is a really high risk business for both the companies that write the coverage and the employees that work in that sector. Has that experience given you some perspective on workers’ comp as well? Did you ever have a claim?
Senator Riser: At the time that I was working it [1976-1985], that was the most dangerous occupation in the world. By the time I was 14 to 22 there were three people killed on our jobs. My uncle I worked for, also got killed in a work accident in 1988. It’s a dangerous world – you don’t make mistakes. It doesn’t take but one wrong move to finish everything for you, and just getting injured is really common.
I got hurt bad one time, but my uncle was pretty hardened so I just didn’t tell him I got hurt.
Comp Blog: As you’re probably aware, not reporting claims or not reporting them in a timely manner is a major issue. What happened in your accident?
Senator Riser: Well we were taking pulpwood – which is 65 feet, that’s what’s legal on the road – and taking the loader and dragging it. The tree tops were in the loader so they’re kind of spring loaded. Now, the number one rule on the job is don’t do somebody else’s job. With all that heavy machinery out there, that’s how you get killed because if you’re doing somebody else’s job they don’t know where you’re at on the job.
So I decided to help one of the sawhands and started cutting these tree tops, I was probably about five feet deep and cut one that was spring loaded and it came back and hit me right in the middle of the waist and threw me 20 feet in the air. I was unconscious for awhile, I don’t know how long. In a dangerous occupation, you’ll hear people make jokes about accidents and make light of it. When I came to, I had blood coming out my mouth – there wasn’t anybody laughing. In the midst of that immediately afterwards I thought I was dying.
Comp Blog: Did you get treatment?
Senator Riser: No, I didn’t go to the hospital. That’s the way to get fired on that job – you were doing somebody else’s job and that’s why you got hurt. So they drove me back to skidder and it took about four days before I could get up by myself. I was bruised through my whole abdomen. That was 1985.
Comp Blog: In that same vein, how about safety and enforcement in that environment? OSHA on the national level is chronically understaffed and underfunded, which they are aiming to remedy for FY17, but they can’t possibly inspect everyone.
Senator Riser: I don’t have any legislation on this, but if I can speak from my experience – go by the safety rules. I have hearing aids now, because I didn’t wear ear protection while I was running chainsaws and other heavy equipment. During that time, in my era, there was a stigma that went with it – that you weren’t a real man if you wore that stuff. The kickback bar from the saw, people removed them, we didn’t wear chaps, no eyegear. I’ve seen people cut, legs broken, metal in eyes. Now, they adhere to it and they should.
Comp Blog: Do you think enforcement is adequate at this time in Louisiana?
Senator Riser: I think a lot of industry in the state is doing the enforcement on their own [instead of waiting for OSHA or loss control inspections] because they don’t want to take that employee and spend all that time investing in them and training them just to have them taken out because of an injury. You can look at an oil field from the 70s to now and see huge changes. Of course, there are always going to be those that don’t follow the rules and companies that don’t enforce them, but the majority are.
Comp Blog: On a final note, the state now faces a $900 million shortfall in the budget that ends June 30th and a separate $2 billion shortfall next year. The reason for this has largely been attributed to former Governor Bobby Jindal’s fiscal policies, but part of the issue is the consistently low price of crude, which has significantly reduced the amount of revenue Louisiana expected to acquire from taxing that resource. What do you have to say about Louisiana’s economic prospects?
Senator Riser: We have diversified our economy in the last couple of decades. Around 40 percent used to be tied up in oil and gas interests and now we’re around 14 percent. However, we are an energy state and we’re going to continue to be an energy state, so we have to develop better solutions to deal with these fluctuations.
One potential way to solve this is to take a longer average of the oil price. The way we budget for oil could be improved then. Right now the Revenue Committee takes the current year’s price. Taking a long term average – like one or two business cycles of five years – might be a better way to stabilize our expectations on the budgeting side. Every dollar fluctuation in oil means $12.5 million for the state. Oil and gas touches so many industries, and talented individuals that now don’t have jobs to go to, that is starts to create a ripple that rocks the whole economy. The upcoming session is going to be tedious.
Image Credit: The New Orleans Advocate