By WAYNE LIEB
As a former Industrial Appeals judge and as an attorney with more than 25 years of experience specializing in workers’ compensation law, I have never seen such blatant disregard for our injured workers than what is happening in our state Senate.
More than 100 years ago, a fundamental compromise was reached between employers and workers to protect those injured on the job. In exchange for giving up their right to sue their employers, workers were guaranteed the minimum protections of medical care and time loss compensation while they were unable to work.
Today, those fundamental promises are under attack by the Senate Republicans along with Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon.
The Senate’s package of workers’ compensation legislation undercuts this safety net and will endanger injured workers, their families and even widows and children of workers injured and killed on the job.
For example, one piece of legislation would allow younger workers to sign away all future claim rights at the time of their greatest economic and medical stress, decisions that will have a tremendous impact for the rest of their lives.
Not only does this legislation exploit workers who are financially vulnerable, while they are out of work, it is fiscally irresponsible, as the future cost of medical care would no longer be covered under the workers’ compensation system, but would be shifted onto taxpayers in the form of subsidized medical benefits and disability payments in the long term.
Another bill would overturn a unanimous state Supreme Court decision, Tobin v. Department of Labor and Industries, and allow the state and private employers to claim portions of the recovery in private civil actions, resulting from workplace injuries, including wrongful death cases, even though they did not pay for these benefits under the workers’ compensation claim.
What the Republicans aren’t telling the public is that injured workers are already required to pay back workers’ compensation, if they receive a settlement. Currently, this process yields the state tens of millions of dollars in recoveries every year.
A proposed bill would give some employers the ability to interfere in claims management and to unilaterally spend state funds by ordering “defense” medical examinations and vocational assessments.
This legislation facilitates an adversarial position against the injured worker with the goal of closing claims earlier than warranted. It also would allow workers’ medical and financial records to be open to public scrutiny and inspection, allowing employers to blacklist injured workers.
Washington’s workers’ compensation system has consistently been rated in the top tiers nationally. Less than 18 months ago, the Legislature passed several laws that stabilized the fund with a projected savings of more than $2 billion.
As a consequence, employers have not seen premiums increase for two straight years. Virtually all of these savings were paid for by reducing benefits to injured workers.
The financial health of the system and the reduction of worker benefits are why Gov. Jay Inslee has criticized these bills as “unnecessary” and “very much going in the wrong direction.”
We are all better off when our injured workers are provided the minimum assistance they need to get back to work. The attack by the senate Republicans, on this important social safety net, must be rejected.
Wayne Lieb is a former Industrial Appeals Judge and currently an attorney in Olympia, with more than 25 years of experience specializing in workers’ compensation law. This opinion column, which originally appeared in The Olympian, is published here with the author’s permission.