May 20, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Workers’ comp idea is worthy of a vote

 

After four years or more of debating the issue, Washington state lawmakers have heard all the arguments for and against a workers’ compensation proposal known as “compromise and release.” Why not just vote on it?

The Legislature’s special session is scheduled to end Wednesday, and the workers’ comp bill is one of the major obstacles to adjournment. The Senate has passed the measure by a comfortable 34-15 margin, Gov. Chris Gregoire supports it, and keen observers in Olympia believe there are sufficient votes in the House to pass it, too.

Why not just let the political process work as it’s supposed to?

The problem lies with House leadership, primarily Speaker Frank Chopp, who won’t allow an up-or-down vote, much to the satisfaction of labor leaders, who sharply oppose the measure.

But by approving compromise and release, the Legislature would give union members and other employees who suffer permanently disabling workplace injuries something they don’t have now – something their counterparts in 44 other states do have. They could either accept a lifelong pension, as they can now, or they could take an up-front, lump-sum settlement.

It’s the worker’s choice.

Labor leaders say an injured worker would be too easily duped into settling too cheaply. Yet the measure assures that the individual receives professional legal and financial advice, a careful analysis to protect his or her welfare and 30 days to think it over before anything becomes final.

Business interests, who pay most of the costs of the industrial insurance program, are firmly behind legislation that will save hundreds of millions of dollars by lowering the costs of administering lifelong benefits. The workers’ comp program pays about $2 billion a year in benefits, most of it for long-term claims. Washington state awards more lifetime pensions than almost all other states.

But the fund is in danger of insolvency, according to the state auditor’s office. One way to address that is to hike premiums again (they went up more than 10 percent this year), making it harder for employers to reinvest in their businesses or hire more workers.

A better way is to sift through the existing program and find potential savings, such as those that could be realized through compromise and release. Neighboring Oregon, one of the 44 states that allow voluntary lump-sum payments, has a track record of stable premiums.

This proposal takes nothing away from workers. It gives them a new settlement option, not to mention the security of a healthier industrial insurance fund. One influential lawmaker shouldn’t be allowed to prevent the full Legislature from expressing its will on an important measure.

Just vote on it.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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