Workers give, business gets in Legislature

You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of “kick-’em when they’re down” politics this year than the workers’ compensation legislation rushed through Olympia on Monday. By the governor’s own estimate, the bill will take about $1 billion that injured workers would have received over the next five years and give it to their employers instead.

Washington was the first state in the nation to create a workers compensation program. Legislators acted at the behest of businesses that feared being sued by injured workers or by their survivors if they were killed in industrial accidents.

This was the bargain: Workers gave up the right to sue their employers for workplace injuries. In exchange, employers participated in a compensation program to give workers some measure of dignity after sustaining injuries and illnesses at their workplaces. It’s why no workers or their survivors sued Tesoro after the petroleum refinery explosion killed seven workers. Workers forfeited that right 100 years ago.

One of the good things about Washington’s workers comp system is that it keeps private insurance companies out. They can’t profit from injured workers, because we have a state system. As a result, costs to employers are among the bottom third for states, while benefits for workers are ranked third best in the country. Voters like it that way. Last November, the people drubbed Initiative 1082 (60 percent voted “no”), which would have given our workers’ comp system over to private insurers.
But these benefits are hardly generous. For example, if you are married with one child, make $50,000 a year and are permanently disabled from an on-the-job injury, you will receive $33,500 annually — not exactly big money. If your foot is cut off in an industrial accident, you will receive one-time compensation of $18,900. If you lose a leg “above the knee with short thigh stump” you will receive $54,000. If you are killed on the job, and your kids are grown up, your spouse will receive 60 percent of your wages. If you have a dependent child, your spouse will receive 62 percent.

After the explosion at the Tesoro refinery, the state levied a fine of $2.39 million for 39 willful violations of workplace safety and health regulations. That’s $341,428.57 for the life of each worker. Of course, Tesoro has appealed the fine. Tesoro’s profits in the first three months of this year? $107 million.

You might think that Olympia would decide it was time to treat injured workers with a little more respect and a little more compensation. But led by Gov. Chris Gregoire, the Legislature decreased benefits for injured workers. Sure, the debate was around workers’ comp “reform.” That’s how you make anything look good — you call it reform.

But look at what the bill actually does, and you’ll see that it simply transfers money from workers who are injured on the job to their employers. What a deal! You get hurt, and some of the money that used to let you live with some dignity goes to the company where you were injured.

Other than the governor’s own $1 billion estimate, it’s hard to get a precise figure on how much money is being transferred from workers to employers — because unlike every other bill with financial impacts, this one did not even get a fiscal note. One immediate result is that injured workers will not get any cost-of-living adjustment this year that was previously due them.

Who helped the governor with this gift to business? Republicans, of course, but hey, they are just being honest about what they believe in and who pays for their elections. Democrats helped out, too.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, was a leader in this effort. He squeaked by in the last election, coming in with a little less than 51 percent of the vote. In his district, Initiative 1082 was handily defeated. Who is Hobbs listening to? Not the constituents in his district.

How about Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes, where Tesoro’s refinery is located? His district defeated I-1082 by a 60 percent margin. His gift to his constituents? Take money from injured workers and give it to businesses.

A handful of legislators actually stood up for injured workers — Everett’s Sen. Nick Harper, San Juan County’s Kevin Ranker and Bothell’s Rosemary McAuliffe among them. In Snohomish County, Reps. Marko Liias, Luis Moscoso, Mary Helen Roberts, Mike Sells and Derek Stanford all voted to protect injured workers. They knew this was no “reform.” They understand that in a democracy the Legislature is supposed to advance the quality of life of the people who elect their representatives. On Monday that American ideal was sacrificed in backroom corporate deal-making with the governor and her friends.

Originally published at HeraldNet

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