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Guest opinion: Steady workers’ compensation rates good for businesses, employees

Joel Sacks

Whether it’s for your family or your business, planning and budgeting for future expenses can be tough. That’s especially true this time of year when many often have more money going out than coming in. It’s even more challenging when expenses are unpredictable.

That’s why keeping workers’ compensation rates steady and predictable is one of the Department of Labor & Industries’ priorities. It’s good for all Washingtonians. Many business owners will remember that, not too long ago, workers’ compensation premiums had wild fluctuations: A decrease one year followed by a nearly 30 percent rate increase a few years later. The department doesn’t like that any more than employers or employees, especially when it can be avoided. Whenever possible, rates should be more like a smooth road and less like a roller coaster.

If you’re an employee who has never been hurt at work, or if you own a business and you have never had it happen to one of your employees, you might not know much about workers’ compensation. It is essentially a state-run insurance program.

Many of your friends, neighbors and businesses are helped by the system every year. About 2.5 million workers and 160,000 employers in Washington are covered by the Workers’ Compensation State Fund. L&I accepts more than 80,000 claims annually.

Each fall, the department sets workers’ compensation rates for the upcoming year. Businesses pay the biggest share for workers’ compensation to cover their employees, so naturally they pay close attention to rates but, really, everybody should. In Washington, employees pay about 25 percent of the cost of this important coverage.

One of the ways the department is keeping rates steady is by using wage inflation as a benchmark. As wages climb, the cost of providing workers’ compensation coverage rises. Washington’s most recent wage inflation number is 2 percent.

That’s one of the reasons why L&I initially proposed an average 1.8 percent rate increase for next year. However, there’s been some good news that’s allowing the department to make it even lower. Our third-quarter workers’ compensation financial numbers show continued improvement. So, after considering that, together with public comments on the proposal, the increase was lowered to 0.8 percent for 2015. This small increase balances the need for predictable rates and rebuilding the workers’ compensation reserves that were drawn down during the recession.

The smaller rate increase means workers and employers will keep about $20 million that they would have paid into the system at the higher proposed rate. At the same time, L&I is working on several initiatives to make itself more efficient and less costly to operate, while preventing injuries, and helping injured workers heal and get back to work as soon as possible. It’s making a difference, and the department is starting to see some solid results.

Preventing injuries at work is by far the best strategy, yet getting hurt on the job or getting sick from something a worker is exposed to on the job can happen to anybody. We’re fortunate in our state to have a reliable system in place that’s ready to help workers and employers get through those tough times.

The additional money taken in through this rate increase will assure Washington has a healthy system today and is ready for the unexpected tomorrow.

Joel Sacks is director of the Washington Department of Labor & Industries.
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