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Republicans tee up annual proposal to cut workers’ comp

OLYMPIA (March 1, 2017) — Every year, business groups in Olympia seek benefit cuts and eligibility restrictions for the Washington’s workers’ compensation safety net for injured workers and their families — and 2017 is no exception.

SB 5822, sponsored by Sen. Michael Baumgartner, the Spokane Republican who has also sponsored legislation to make Washington a so-called “right-to-work” state, is a wish list of workers’ comp erosions sought by business lobbying groups. Although it stands little chance of passage in the divided Legislature, there are concerns that Republicans will once again seek concessions embodied in the bill from Democrats amid last-minute budget negotiations, as they have repeatedly done in the past.

“This legislation stacks the deck against injured workers and their families just when they’re least able to stand up and defend themselves,” said Jeff Johnson, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “Attempts to leverage changes in workers’ compensation for passing budgets is wrong, and is a tactic that should be rejected.”

Here’s what the legislation would do:

SB 5822 allows employers and L&I to interfere with workers’ seeking justice. — The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in Tobin v. Labor and Industries (2009) that workers can recover non-economic damages from third parties responsible for their injuries, and that pain and suffering damages cannot be “scooped up” by employers or L&I by lowering other damages. This is important because employers and L&I do not pay benefits on non-economic damages. SB 5822 would allow them to seize these judgements to defray costs they never paid.

SB 5822 denies workers who have contracted occupational diseases relief from their conditions. — When a worker contracts an occupational disease due to exposure to harsh chemicals, or repetitive work tasks that erode their bodies, they must prove with medical evidence that their disease was contracted due to their work. SB 5822 would prohibit workers from getting benefits for occupational disease if those diseases could be contracted through the normal course of living. Sheet metal workers would be denied treatment for arthritis and carpal tunnel because of the possibility of having developed it otherwise, despite medical evidence showing the relationship to work.

To add insult to injury, SB 5822 establishes impossible time frames for filing a claim. Reducing the filing window from two years to one, SB 5822 starts the clock at the earliest of:

— The date of first diagnosis, or
— The date the worker first sought treatment for symptoms, or
— The date the worker was first restricted from work activities.

Whether or not the occupational nature of the disease was known has no bearing. If a worker is given cough syrup from a doctor for a sore throat, their throat cancer treatment 18 months later would be denied.

SB 5822 stacks the deck against our youngest workers in settlement negotiations with their bosses. — Structured settlements allow L&I and employers to compromise workers’ benefits, and release them from their responsibilities to workers in exchange for lump-sum payments that are less than what they would otherwise receive over time. Studies have shown that workers who are in structured settlement talks do not fully understand the scope of their rights, and do not have a clear sense of the value of the benefits they are giving up. And that’s for workers aged 50 and older. SB 5822 expects workers as young as 18 years old to settle claims that may be expected to bridge them to retirement. Workers have to make assumptions about the economy over periods measured in decades, while they are unable to work, and the bills at home stack up. That is unreasonable.

SB 5822 allows self-insurers to drag out claim approvals. — Currently, self-insured employers must approve or deny claims within 14 days of a claim being filed. SB 5822 would allow Washington’s largest employers to wait 60 days, and in some cases 120 days. While workers are allowed to initially collect benefits, they must pay them all back if the claim is ultimately denied. The law requires sure and certain relief for workers; the current self-insured rules allow for more timely claims determination.

SB 5822 removes important L&I oversight of self-insured employers. — L&I provides important oversight of self-insured claims management. Claim approvals and denials must be overseen by the Department to ensure that workers of our largest employers are ensured the same rights and benefits enjoyed by injured workers supported by the L&I State-Fund. SB 5822 would remove that important oversight. It would give the largest employers in the state a free hand to deny workers’ claims, allowing only periodic spot checks. This is not a recipe for worker recovery; this is a recipe for abuse and disaster.

SB 5822 advanced from the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee (chaired by Sen. Baumgartner) on a strict party-line vote and is now in Senate Rules Committee. It could come to a vote on the Senate floor at any time and the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO urges all senators to oppose this unnecessary, unwarranted weakening of Washington’s safety net for injured workers.

When 10,000 gathered at the Capitol at the April 8, 2011 rally, several speakers urged opposition to “starve and settle” — also known as “compromise and release” lump-sum buyouts.

ALSO at The Stand — As L&I rates edge up, business aims to cut workers’ comp (Dec. 8, 2016) — Every year in Olympia, the Association of Washington Business and allied business groups support legislation to cut injured workers’ benefits — and thus their clients’ costs. And every year, that pits business versus labor and other advocates for maintaining a strong safety net for injured workers.

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