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Workers’ comp reform: If not now, when?

Post by Kim Bradford on Jan. 28, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
January 28, 2010 7:23 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Lawmakers who refuse to fix the state’s program for injured workers wouldn’t know a mandate if it hit them upside the head.
Three months ago, Boeing announced it was taking its second 787 line elsewhere, in part over concerns that Washington’s workers’ compensation system was too expensive.

The Department of Labor & Industries, as if to underscore Boeing’s point, shortly announced that premiums would be jumping an average of 7.6 percent.

The department’s message to squawking businesses: Be thankful we’re not charging you more. The rate hike was only one-third what the department’s own financial experts had advised charging.

If the specter of 20 percent rate increases isn’t enough to scare the Democratic majority into action, then the wake-up call delivered by a state audit last month should be. The audit found that L&I’s experts were overly optimistic about the fiscal soundness of workers’ compensation accounts. In one fund, L&I had underestimated the shortfall by nearly 45 percent.

The state workers’ compensation system is simply unsustainable as is. All signs point to the need for reform – all signs, that is, except the signal coming from labor. It’s threatening to run candidates against those Dems who don’t toe the line.

If threats aren’t enough, the unions also have people in powerful places in the Legislature. Rep. Steve Conway, a Tacoma Democrat who serves as secretary-treasurer for Local 81 of the United Food & Commercial Worker’s Union, is chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee that would handle workers’ compensation legislation.

Conway is refusing to hear any workers’ comp bills this year – not even the measure sponsored by his own speaker pro tem, Jeff Morris of Mt. Vernon. Conway says businesses will have to find a compromise that’s acceptable to labor before he’ll let it through.

Morris’ bill is aimed primarily at creating some middle ground in a system that now offers the worst-off workers essentially two choices: file for partial disability and get a small payout, or hold out for a total permanent disability and get the granddaddy of awards, the lifetime pension.

Not surprisingly, many injured workers set their sights on a pension. Washington awarded 1,771 of them in 2008, nearly eight times the national average. Oregon, by comparison, awarded nine.

Oregon happens to be one of the 43 states that allow businesses to settle with permanently disabled workers for a lump sum. Washington businesses want that option, and Morris’ bill would give it to them.

But even if Morris could get past Conway, he’d have to contend with other Democrats who don’t want to give the Building Industry Association of Washington a stage to promote its drastic alternative. Last week, the association filed a citizen initiative to privatize workers’ compensation.

Lawmakers may find that, in trying to deprive their opponents of air, they only give the ballot measure new life. Voters will rightfully wonder: If the Legislature cannot summon the will to act now, will it ever?

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