Washington Senators to Hear Workers’ Compensation Bills

By JONATHAN KAMINSKY | January 24, 2013

The GOP-led Washington state Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will on Wednesday consider five bills intended to save businesses money by changing workers’ compensation rules.

Proponents say the measures, which include making it easier for injured workers to take settlement agreements from their employers or the state instead of litigating for more money, would make the system more cost-effective.

“These bills would create a more efficient, fair and less-expensive workers’ compensation system for both employers and workers who pay into and are covered by it,” said Kristopher Tefft, general counsel for the Association of Washington Business.

Opponents counter that those cost savings would come at the expense of injured workers, and lamented that the takeover of the state Senate by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, which has labeled itself the Majority Coalition Caucus, has brought these ideas to the fore.

“These bills all have the same things in common. They cut benefits for injured workers and are sponsored exclusively by the new Senate coalition,” said David Groves, spokesman for the Washington State Labor Council.

One of the measures, Senate Bill 5126, would reverse a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling that barred the state from compensating itself for benefits paid to an injured worker by taking a cut of the pain and suffering damages awarded to the worker suing a third party for his or her injury.

Another, Senate Bill 5124, would change how an injured worker’s benefits are calculated, in part by excluding the value of his or her health benefits.

Two of the bills, Senate Bills 5127 and 5128, would make “compromise-and-release” settlement agreements available to all workers – they are currently limited to those 55 and older – and make it easier for the state to approve such deals, respectively.

The bill lifting the age restriction on such deals has a companion bill in the House, House Bill 1097, sponsored by Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw.

The proposed changes to the workers compensation system come in the wake of a raft of reforms passed in 2011 meant to rein in costs to a system widely viewed as overburdened.

The state’s Department of Labor and Industries recently proposed a series of tax increases, mostly aimed at employers, to raise $1.1 billion over the next decade in order to further shore up its reserves.

The proposed measures are intended to avoid such tax increases while putting the state’s workers’ compensation system on firmer financial footing going forward, said Tefft.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said the five bills will “likely” pass out of the Senate, adding that he hopes that the Democratic-led House would then seriously consider adopting them.

“I hope the House shares our interest in controlling these costs so that we can employ more people or pay the ones we have at better salaries,” said Schoesler.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, chair of the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee, said he had not yet carefully reviewed the Senate bills and wasn’t ruling out any course of action on them should they come to his committee.

However, Sells said, he was leery of revisiting workers compensation rules so soon after enacting major reforms to the system that appear to be saving the state money.

“Tinkering around with worker compensation at this time doesn’t make a whole of sense,” he said.

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