Afternoon Jolt: Workers' Comp

By Josh Feit March 22, 2011

Even though it wasn't scheduled for a hearing, a senate bill that threatens to scale back workers' comp payouts took center stage in the house labor committee this morning.

Even though the big worker's comp bill that has labor advocates in Olympia all anxious was never actually scheduled for a formal house hearing  (the bill, passed by the senate earlier this month, threatens to scale back workers comp payouts), it did end up getting a mini-hearing today.

During the house labor committee meeting this morning on a couple of other workers' comp bills that labor is willing to support as compromise cost saving measures, committee chair Rep. Mike Sells (D-38, Everett) asked people to address any issues they wanted to.

What was on everyone's mind? Senate bill 5566, the one labor is so nervous about.

The  bill, initially introduced in the senate at the beginning of the session at the request of Gov. Chris Gregoire by liberal Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36, Ballard, Queen Anne) to increase disability payments and pay for safety and health programs up front to cut down on health costs, was eventually commandeered by the GOP, which teamed up with conservative Democrats, to pass the bill earlier this month as a different animal—a "compromise and release" bill.

"Compromise and release" allows companies to shop settlement agreements to injured workers rather than going with the payout mandated by the state's Department of Labor and Industries. Labor fears that workers, intimidated by dragged out appeals, may take lesser settlements.

Today's surprise hearing actually turned into a win for labor, though.

Sells, it turns out, isn't interested in the bill. He told PubliCola after the hearing that the "compromise and release" bill "doesn't have the votes to make it out of my committee." (The committee is packed with labor Democrats, like Sells, who oppose it.)

Sells dismissed the GOP's argument that the settlements are "voluntary"—a reference to the fact that the workers, not the companies, request the settlements.

"It's not voluntary when someone is holding out on you," Sells says referring to the fact that companies can appeal decisions after two months. (Request for settlements, conveniently enough, aren't allowed until three months out.)

So, win one for labor today.

However, it may be a short-lived win. The Roadkill Caucus, the centrist and conservative Democrats who aligned with the Republicans on the bill to pass it out of the senate are "determined to have it come up in the house," according to Sen. Kohl-Welles.

One Roadkill senate Democrat who supports the bill, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) says "it's an important bill we believe should pass," explaining that "it's a way to save costs [closing claims rather than ongoing administration] while still protecting workers." (Hobbs cited provisions in the bill that make sure the claims go before a board and mandate a cooling off period).

Hobbs also brought up one point that could sting labor: "We're waiting to receive the fiscal note on it," he said. If the bill comes with whopping savings it could put pressure on the house to move forward despite Sells' qualms. (Hobbs, however, said it was up to the house moderates to move the bill in the house now.)

When asked about the bill's chances to make it out of Sells' committee, centrist house Democrat, Rep. Deb Eddy (D-48, Kirkland) alluded to the fiscal note as well, saying she was "keeping her powder dry" until she sees the numbers. "I'm waiting to see an updated and credible fiscal note from the Governor's office," Eddy says. "I understand labor doesn't even want to consider voluntary settlement, but I think the public expects us to look at everything right now."

A whopping savings in a fiscal note could make labor's point, though:

“The only way to save money," says Washington State Labor Council spokesman David Groves, "is if the company pays out less than they were supposed to under the claim system.”

We also have a call in to Sen. Jenea Holmquist Newbry (R-13, Moses Lake), who led the push to rewrite and pass the Kohl-Welles' bill. Kohl-Welles voted against it.
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