THE workers’ compensation bill that passed 30-19in the state Senate Monday, Substitute Senate Bill 5127, is a strong effort to head off future rate increases on employers and workers. The House should pass it as well.
Washington’s benefits are among the highest in the country, as is its rate of awarding lifetime disability pensions. Costs are also high and act as a tax on the creation of jobs. They rise to an absurd level in a few high-risk industries: At a hearing in Olympia, a Cowlitz County logging operator said his company had to pay $19.61 for each employee hour for workers’ compensation insurance.
In addition, the system’s reserves were drawn down during the recession in order to prevent rate increases. Reserves need to be increased by $1.1 billion over the next 10 years, which implies future rate increases.
One way to reduce costs is to offer injured workers fixed settlements instead of pensions. Forty-four other states, including Oregon, do this, but it was blocked for decades here by organized labor.
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The unions argue that workers will get less money out of a settlement, which is usually true. But some workers can use upfront money to set up a new way to make a living. The choice should be the worker’s.
In 2011, the Legislature passed a law allowing settlements to workers 55 and older, which is the group least likely to want them. So far, there have been only 28 settlements. SSB 5127 would lower the minimum age to 40, giving many more claimants this choice.
Under current practice, the state Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals reviews settlements and rejects the ones it thinks are not fair to the worker.
Already a worker has taken the board to court over a rejection, insisting it is his decision. SSB 5127 would make it the worker’s decision if represented by an attorney.
Two other workers’ compensation bills also passed the Senate, but they have little chance in the Democrat-controlled House. SSB 5127 is the one with support among moderate Democrats and is the one that matters.