Washington state's new workers' comp law hurts those already in pain

Gov. Gregoire joined Republicans and quite a few Democrats to create a system that transfers money to businesses, at the expense of injured workers and the surviving relatives of workers who are killed.

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Washington State Capitol

Gov. Gregoire joined Republicans and quite a few Democrats to create a system that transfers money to businesses, at the expense of injured workers and the surviving relatives of workers who are killed.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of "kick-em when they're down" politics this year than the workers' compensation legislation rushed through Olympia on Monday (May 23). By the governor’s own estimate, the bill will take about $1 billion that injured workers would have received over the next five years, and give it to their employers instead.

Washington was the first state in the nation to create a workers' compensation program. Legislators acted at the behest of businesses that feared being sued by injured workers or by their survivors if they were killed in industrial accidents.

This was the bargain: Workers gave up the right to sue their employers for workplace injuries; in exchange, employers participated in a compensation program to give workers some measure of dignity after sustaining injuries and illnesses at their workplaces.

One of the good things about Washington’s workers' compensation system is that it keeps private insurance companies out. They can't profit from injured workers, because we have a state system. As a result, costs to employers are among the bottom third for states, while benefits for workers are ranked third best in the country. Voters like it that way. Last November, the people drubbed Initiative 1082 (60 percent voted "no"), which would have given our workers’ compensation system over to private insurers.

But these benefits are hardly generous. For example, if you are married with one child, make $50,000 a year, and are permanently disabled from an on-the-job injury, you will receive $33,500 annually — not exactly big money. If your foot is cut off in an industrial accident, you will receive one-time compensation of $18,900. If you lose a leg "above the knee with short thigh stump," you will receive $54,000. If you are killed on the job, and your kids are grown up, your spouse will receive three-fifths of your wages. If you have a dependent child, your spouse will receive 62 percent of your wages.

After the 2010 explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes killed seven workers, the state levied a fine of $2.39 million for 39 willful violations of workplace safety and health regulations. That’s $341,428.57 for the life of each worker. Of course, Tesoro has appealed the fine. Tesoro’s profits in the first three months of this year? $107 million. 

You might think that Olympia would decide it was time to treat injured workers with a little more respect and a little more compensation. But led by Gov. Chris Gregoire, the Senate and House passed legislation to decrease benefits for injured workers. Sure, the debate was around workers’ compensation "reform." That's how you make anything look good — you call it "reform."

But look at what the bill actually does, and you’ll see that it simply transfers money from workers who are injured on the job to their employers. What a deal! You get hurt, and some of the money that used to let you live with some dignity goes to the company where you were injured.

Other than the governor’s own $1 billion estimate, it’s hard to get a precise figure on how much money is being transferred from workers to employers – because unlike every other bill with financial impacts, this one did not even get a fiscal note. One immediate result is that injured workers will not get any cost-of-living adjustment this year that was previously due them.

Who helped the governor with this gift to business? Republicans of course, but, hey, they are just being honest about what they believe in and who pays for their elections. Democrats helped out, too.

Seattle voters rejected Initiative 1082, the attempt to enable private insurance companies to feed off of injured workers, by a 3-to-1 margin. In the 36th Legislative District (Magnolia, Queen Anne, Phinney Ridge) and 46th (Greenwood, Northgate, Lake City and Laurelhurst ), the vote was 73 percent in opposition. In the 43rd (Capitol Hill, University District, Madison Park, Washington Park, Broadmoor, Montlake, Wallingford, Madison Valley) and 37th (Rainier Valley, Madrona, North Beacon Hill, Rainier Beach, Mt. Baker, Leschi, Columbia City, southern Capitol Hill, Skyway), more than three out of four voters opposed I-1082.

So did Seattle legislators embrace the shrinking of injured workers’ benefits, in the guise of reform? Their ambivalence as a group says a lot about the muddle the Democrats are in.

State Reps. Mary Lou Dickerson, Joe Fitzgibbon, Bob Hasegawa, Zack Hudgins, Phyllis Kenney, and Sharon Tomiko Santos all sided with injured workers, as did state Sens. Adam Kline, Ed Murray, Sharon Nelson, and Scott White. They remembered their constituents. But too many Democratic legislators gave in to corporate demands to take benefits from injured workers. These included state Reps. Reuven Carlyle, Eileen Cody, David Frockt, Ruth Kagi, and Jamie Pedersen, joined by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles.

A handful of legislators actually spoke up for injured workers. In the House, Rep. Chris Reykdal (D-Olympia) led a lonely fight to allow workers and their survivors to sue companies in the event of workplace injury or death. This one amendment could have held Tesoro accountable for the deaths due to its refinery explosion. (State workers' compensation law generally forbids suits; families of six of the dead Tesoro workers, and one surviving contractor who was injured, filed suit in February, citing what their attorneys say is an exception in law for "deliberately" intended injury.) Reykdal's amendment would have made employers actually abide by laws protecting workers' health and safety, instead of flaunting them.

In the Senate, Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), Steve Conway (D-Tacoma), Maralyn Chase (D-Shoreline), and Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) offered amendments to reduce the takeaways. Sen. Nelson’s suggestion that the new benefit design should provide no less than 85 percent of the old benefits was rebuffed. But it showed the nature of the beast of this legislation, punishing injured workers while moving more money to business.

These legislators, isolated in their own party, knew this was no reform. They understand that in a democracy the Legislature is supposed to advance the quality of life of the people who elect their representatives. On Monday, that American ideal was sacrificed in backroom corporate deal-making with the governor and her friends.


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