DENVER (CBS4) – A law meant to protect workers who get hurt on the job could shut down some small businesses in Colorado. Those businesses are facing massive fines for violations that — in some cases — happened years ago.
The Legislature set-up penalties for offenders to ensure compliance, but it didn’t set-up any requirement for notifying offenders in a timely manner when they’re out of compliance. As Complete Colorado was first to report, some businesses are now being fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for violations going back years.
When Silvia Antunez opened El Trompito Taqueria 16 years ago she knew a lot about food, but not much about running a business, including the need for workers’ compensation insurance. She found out when the state fined her.
“They give us about, I think, $9,000, the penalties, and they reduced to $500,” Antunez said.
Antunez says after that she hired a broker — a friend from church — to make sure her employees were covered. It didn’t happen.
“He didn’t answer the phone … I don’t see him at church anymore,” she said.
This time the fines totaled $525,000. The state says Antunez had been without coverage for five years and it had just discovered it.
“Why they don’t let me know? I know it’s my responsibility, but five years is too much,” Antunez said.
“Unfortunately we don’t have a system that flags us when an employer drops coverage,” Cher Haavind with the Department of Labor and Employment said.
Haavind said with seven people to investigate seven hundred cases it can take years to find violators. And on a second offense they’re required by law to fine at least $250 a day from the date the coverage was dropped, not the date they discover it.
“These fines are outrageous, we agree, we settle on first notice when we can,” Haavind said. “But think about lives of worker who may get severely, permanently injured on the job. That business really has an obligation to protect their life and safety and health and wellness.”
But Antunez says the Department of Labor also has an obligation to notify businesses right away if they’re out of compliance, not wait five years and issue a six figure fine.
“For us it’s just too much money, maybe need to close the business,” she said.
When the Legislature established the new fines the state estimated an average fine for a second offender would run about $28,000 and that it would collect about $200,000 total the first year — not more than $500,000 from one business alone.
The law could be revisited in the 2017 legislative session.