Workers’ Comp office in Fort Smith to close

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 120 views 

What was a possibility has now become a reality as the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission has notified its commissioners that it will close the AWCC's Fort Smith office.

The letter, by AWCC CEO Alan McClain, said that closing either the Fort Smith or Springdale offices was not a decision taken lightly.

"For some time now, the AWCC staff has been examining the need to continue to operate two satellite offices in the northwest portion of the state, and have arrived at the conclusion that the Commission can operate more efficiently and economically with only one office in that sector."

According to McClain, three factors were taken into consideration that ultimately led to the decision to shutter the Fort Smith office:
• Input received from the staff at the Fort Smith and Springdale offices;
• Communications received by the Commission and the Governor's office; and
• Analysis of cost information pertaining to the issue.

AWCC Chairman Watson Bell said in a letter that an unfunded liability in the worker's compensation fund was pushing the commission to make cuts across the board.

"This decision, unfortunately, was made necessary by the fact that the AWCCs' Death and Permanent Disability Trust Fund is faced with an approximate $135 million unfunded liability," he wrote. "Although the Governor has kept management and labor apprised of this status for some time now, they have failed to agree on any of the proposed resolutions put fourth, leaving no option to address this other other than these closings."

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders said he was disappointed by AWCC's decision.

"It's very disappointing and an improper decision," he said. "With the number of jobs in the Fort Smith region, it puts an undo burden on businesses and it's ill advised."

Asked whether the city would fight the closure and how that would happen, Sanders said it was too early to know.

"The decision is just out. We've not assessed what our next move (will be). But I think we'll do everything in our power to convince them to keep this office open."

Even with the impending closure, which will require workers' compensation claimants in the Fort Smith area to either drive to Springdale or conduct business by phone and mail, AWCC Assistant CEO James Daniel said job losses will not take place.

"We would not lay anyone off," he said on July 15. "I am not clear on (where they would work should one of the offices close). I would presume they would work out of whichever office is kept open. I would have to research that."

Daniel said of the 6,672 claims filed with the commission during fiscal year ending June 30, Sebastian County had 322 claims filed versus 419 in Washington County.

A closing date for the Fort Smith office has not been determined, though McClain said, "the Fort Smith office should be closed on or before July 1, 2014."