Along with the stress and anxiety Washington’s lawmakers are feeling as they balance the state budget for the next two years, at least some must harbor a regret or two over past policy decisions that contributed to the present dilemma.
If that puts the Legislature in a mood to take corrective action, plenty of candidates await attention. Near the front of the line is a reform that would bring the state’s workers’ compensation program in line with most of the rest of the nation and lower what a consultant has described as an abnormally high number of lifetime pensions.
Washington is one of only seven states that disallow what’s known as “compromise and release” in the way they settle claims for permanently disabled workers. In the others, such a worker has a choice, not permitted here, to take a lump sum instead of a lifetime of monthly checks.
The key word is “choice.”
Opponents of the concept, mostly from organized labor, paint a fearful picture of desperate, injured workers hounded by unscrupulous employers to sign away lifetime security for an immediate but inadequate chunk of cash.
It doesn’t work that way. Engrossed Senate Bill 5566, if enacted, would create a system loaded with safeguards against impulsive, emotional or otherwise unsound decisions.
Weeks of reflection are built in so bad choices won’t be made in haste. Benefits continue during that waiting time so financial pressure won’t be a source of leverage.
Meanwhile, a worker would receive expert advice about all options, and the state’s Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals would have to be satisfied that the lump-sum settlement was in the worker’s best interest.
After all that, a disabled worker who preferred a pension to a payout would get it.
It would be the employee’s choice – the option that exists now, or something new.
The state, meanwhile, benefits in two ways. For every compromise-and-release settlement that’s accepted, a lifetime of administrative costs is saved in the Department of Labor and Industries. And, as demand is eased on the payroll taxes that fund the program, businesses in the state will have more left to reinvest in job creation – all the while sprucing up a reputation that discourages out-of-state companies from investing here.
It’s easy to see why the Senate approved this proposal a month ago by a comfortable 34-15 margin. With time running out in the 2011 session, though, the measure is stalled in the House, where union-favorite Speaker Frank Chopp is said to be the main impediment.
Given a chance to vote on the merits of the bill, the House just might match the Senate’s bipartisan sensibility, giving injured workers an expanded choice and removing a brake on economic vitality.
Forty-three other states give their workers this choice. What a shame if one legislative leader prevents Washington from joining them.