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Legislative Update: Giving the corporations what they want

GOP senators seek lower wages, lower benefits for injured workers


Leg-Update-15_145x145 copypdf-versionToday’s edition of the WSLC Legislative Update newsletter:

OLYMPIA (Feb. 3, 2015) — Last week’s edition of this newsletter, “Give the people what they want,”described several popular bills that are advancing in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Bills to increase the minimum wage, establish a paid sick leave standard, and enact other pro-worker policies are wildly popular at the polls. Many Democrats campaigned on these issues, which are part of their party platform, so it’s not surprising to see them considered.

So what about the Senate? Now that Republicans control that body — unfettered by the bipartisan pretense of last biennium’s Majority Coalition Caucus — what “popular” causes are they pushing? This week, it’s cutting injured workers’ benefits and establishing a new sub-minimum wage. Not exactly what we remember them campaigning on, unless it was behind closed doors in meetings with corporate executives and lobbyists.

braun-johnSen. John Braun (R-Centralia) has sponsored a collection of workers’ compensation bills that lower benefits, make it harder to qualify for them, or undermine the entire system by introducing the profit motive into our state-run system. All the following will have hearings at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee:

GROUP SELF-INSURANCESB 5331 allows small- and medium-sized businesses in the same industry to self-insure as a group. Under current law, only large, stable, and financially healthy employers are allowed to self-insure, and for good reason. In New York, California, and elsewhere, self-insured groups with hundreds of employers in each group have collapsed, leaving injured workers twisting in the wind and individual employers on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in liabilities. SB 5331 would also make the state workers’ compensation system far more expensive for businesses and workers by turning the State Fund into the high-risk insurer of last resort.

OCCUPATIONAL DISEASESB 5509 “clarifies” standards for what’s considered an occupational disease by excluding many legitimate claims. It includes a narrow, unrealistic reporting window of just 60 days (reduced from one year under current law), and the clock starts ticking from the moment a worker is first diagnosed, or even treated for symptoms. For example, if a sick worker is treated for a cough, two months could easily pass before that worker is diagnosed with industrial asthma. Under SB 5509, that would be too late.

workers-compWAGE SIMPLIFICATIONSB 5510 says it is about “simplifying and adding certainty to the calculation of workers’ compensation benefits.” It simplifies by applying a one-size-fits-all approach to calculating injured workers’ benefits, one that removes consideration of such things as the value of health benefits and the number of dependents. The certainty it adds is that struggling families, especially those with multiple children, will get less under SB 5510 than they would without it.

STRUCTURED SETTLEMENTSSB 5513 expands compromise-and-release “structured settlements” so that employers can bargain with all injured workers, regardless of age, to forfeit their claims in exchange for lump-sum payments. Currently, such buyouts are only permissible for workers 53 and older (dropping to 50 next year). That restriction was established in recognition that it is much harder for younger workers to anticipate future medical costs and other long-term needs. Injured workers suffering sudden loss of income and financial hardship are in no position to bargain in their own best long-term interests. Lawmakers should consider eliminating this failed experiment, not expanding it. Instead, SB 5513 exposes more workers to buyouts of pennies on the dollar, in an effort to achieve the unrealistic cost savings that proponents promised in 2011 when these deals were first legalized.

VOLUNTARY SETTLEMENTS — Like the aforementioned bill, SB 5516 eliminates all age restrictions on structured settlements, but now calls the buyouts “voluntary settlements.” It also includes language that could lead to injured workers returning to work before they are medically certified to do so.

PRIVATIZATIONSB 5420, prime sponsored by Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) — with Sen. Braun as the lone co-sponsor — does what voters have resoundingly rejected: allow private insurance companies to sell workers’ comp coverage in Washington. In 2010, a business-backed ballot measure to privatize the system in such a way failed by more than 18 points. It was rejected in every single legislative district in the state.

Clearly, these Senate bills are about giving the corporations what they want. The Washington State Labor Council is strongly opposed to all of the aforementioned workers’ compensation bills and urges their rejection.


Pushing to pay teenagers less


baumgartner-michael-15Also on the agenda for Wednesday’s Senate Commerce and Labor meeting are two bills sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane), that would chip away at our state’s popular minimum wage law as enacted by voters.

SB 5421 would allow businesses to pay teenagers on summer jobs nearly 25 percent less by exempting them from the state minimum wage (now at $9.47/hour) and applying the federal minimum wage still mired at $7.25/hour.

SB 5422, similarly, would lower minimum wages for teenagers. In this case, the bill would expand the existing teen minimum wage (85% of the current minimum for 14 and 15 year olds) to apply to 16, 17, 18, and 19 year olds as well.

At a time when polls show that people want higher minimum wage standards, these tired “teen training wage” ideas have been proposed almost every year since the last minimum wage initiative was approved in 1998. Creating an economic incentive to replace older workers (many of whom are trying to support families), with teenagers (many of whom are either contributing to their family’s income or saving for tuition and other school-related expenses), makes no sense.


Reception, Conference, Rally


All rank-and-file members, staffers and leaders of the unions that comprise the Washington State Labor Council are invited to participate in the council’s annual Legislative Reception and Conference set for Feb. 19-20 in Olympia.

The WSLC Legislative Reception, which is a great opportunity to mix and mingle informally with state lawmakers and fellow union members, will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 19 at the Olympia Red Lion.

15Feb20-Legislative-RallyThe WSLC Legislative/Lobbying Conference will begin at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 20 at the WSLC’s Olympia office building, 906 Columbia St. SW. Buses will pick up folks at the Red Lion hotel that morning to shuttle them to the WSLC office, where parking is limited. After breakfast and a quick briefing/lobby training, participants will walk to the nearby Capitol campus to meet with their senators and representatives.

At noon on Friday, Feb. 20, conference participants will be joined by more union members and community supporters at a rally on the steps of the Legislative Building to call for support of a shared prosperity agenda.

Register online for the Reception and Conference or get more information about the reception/conference. Also, please download and share the rally flier.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!