HORNELL — A Maple City attorney is denouncing the state's decision to close the workers' compensation hearing site in Hornell, and he is asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a personal meeting to press for a reversal of that closure.
Hornell Mayor Shawn Hogan, also a critic of the closing, has offered the use of city hall facilities for workers' compensation hearings. The mayor said there is space available and there would be no charge.
For several decades, local residents involved with workers' compensation hearings had their cases adjudicated in the city, points out William J. Pulos, of the Hornell law firm Pulos and Rosell, LLP. That ended on Nov. 15 of last year, when eight workers' compensation hearing offices in the state were closed.
In addition to Hornell, sites were shuttered in Riverhead, Queensbury, Canton, Oneonta, Monticello, Geneva and Niagara Falls.
Pulos, who represents claimants at administrative hearings for workers' compensation cases, said residents from Allegany, Steuben and Livingston counties, as well as Pennsylvania, had their cases heard in Hornell at a modern, well-secured, easily accessible building with no cost to park. The closest sites now are in Elmira, Rochester and Jamestown.
The state's explanation for closing the "remote" sites was "cost savings," Pulos said. Hornell was one of four sites where hearings were held in a state office building, "at no cost to New York state," Pulos contends.
"I don't think they saved a whole lot of money by (closing the site)," Hogan agreed. "If any."
State legislators from the region support re-opening the office, making written appeals to Cuomo asking him to reconsider the decision.
Pulos, who has made numerous outreaches to the board and the governor, said the Hornell site closing unfairly penalizes the people who can least afford the added expense and burden of travel.
"By closing this site to rural claimants, Gov. Cuomo and the Workers' Compensation Board are forcing rural, injured workers to drive to either Elmira, Jamestown or Rochester for their workers' comp hearings. "Many of those people affected were hurt earning minimum wage; their compensation rate is sometimes $100 or less per week; and now they are being forced to travel with no reimbursement and are being forced to cope with unfamiliar environments."
Pulos calls the move to close the hearing sites an arbitrary decision by the state's executive, Cuomo. Rachel McEneny, director of public information for the Workers' Compensation Board, disagreed, saying the closings were authorized by the state Legislature.
McEneny said the board is sensitive to the hardships faced by injured workers and she said it tries to assist workers by handling cases without personal appearances whenever it can. Pulos concurred, to a degree.
"What we are doing as a stop-gap, temporary measure as a courtesy offered us by the Rochester district office, we are having as many hearings as we can via teleconferencing," he said. "But sometimes you need that personal appearance."
In a Jan. 31 letter to Cuomo, Pulos asks for "a personal meeting with you seeking your assistance in keeping a hearing site open for this rural area of New York State." In the letter, Pulos said arrangements have been made for "free space at Hornell City Hall" with hearings conducted via teleconference with no attendant costs to the state.
Hogan said a third-floor conference room at city hall is available. The mayor said the Workers' Compensation Board has been appraised of the offer. Hearings could be conducted through video conferencing with the administrative law judge off site.
"We would definitely (provide the facilities at no charge) as a service to Hornell residents and the region," Hogan said.
Hogan said he told a New York State Workers' Compensation Board official, Dan West, the board's director of operations, of the city's offer. Hogan said West was receptive to the proposal, "after the smoke has cleared" on the closings. While West did not return a phone call seeking comment, McEneny said no promises were made.
There are currently no plans "to re-open the Hornell hearing site," she said.