week, ProPublica and NPR reported the results of a ground-breaking
national investigation into the systematic destruction of the safety net
for workers injured on the job, which they found has been "steered by big
business and aided by the recent Republican takeovers of state
"Over the past
decade, state after state has been dismantling America's workers' comp system
with disastrous consequences for many of the hundreds of thousands of people
who suffer serious injuries at work each year," the investigation found. "The
cutbacks have been so drastic in some places that they virtually guarantee
injured workers will plummet into poverty. Workers often battle insurance
companies for years to get the surgeries, prescriptions and basic help their
state-run workers' compensation system has not been immune from such cutbacks.
Just months after voters overwhelmingly rejected a business-funded 2010
initiative to privatize our system, corporate lobbying groups aggressively
sought "reforms." They pointed to the system's recession-depleted reserve
funds and predicted dramatic rate increases and job losses unless the
legislature significantly cut the system's costs.
The result in 2011
series of bills supported by both business and labor to help injured
workers return to work sooner, changes that saved the system more than $1
billion. But one controversial "reform," aggressively opposed by labor, allows
employers to negotiate lump-sum buyouts with older injured workers for less
than what they would otherwise receive. Legislators, including many Democrats,
were sold on the idea by dramatic projected savings that have never
2011, even as system
reserves have recovered and rates
have stabilized, business lobbyists have continued to seek benefit cuts,
eligibility restrictions, and an expansion of those buyouts.
The 2015 session is
no exception. With solidified Republican control of the Senate, there are more
such bills than ever:
Occupational Disease (SB
5509) — Radically redefining occupational disease with a new four-part
test that gives employers near immunity for any illnesses/conditions that can
be partially blamed on non-work activities, and dramatically restricting the
time frame for filing claims.
Wage simplification (SB
5510) — "Simplifying" benefit calculations by cutting and capping them.
Plus, nixing a unanimous Supreme Court decision requiring that the value of
health benefits be included in those calculations.
Undermining Tobin (SB
5508) — Overturning a Supreme Court decision in the Tobin case. The bill
would allow employers and the state to confiscate percentages of injured
workers' (and their survivors') court awards for pain-and-suffering in
wrongful death and other cases.
Group Self-Insurance (SB
5331) — Legalizing the risky practice of multiple employers banding
together to self-insure. In other states, such groups have become insolvent
and passed major costs onto other employers and/or abandoned injured workers.
Reporting Injuries (SB
5576) — Dramatically shortening the statute of limitations for filing
claims and requiring that claims be filed with the employer, which opens the
door to intimidation to discourage claims.
5520) — Allowing the private sale of industrial insurance, a concept
overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 2010. That initiative failed in every
county — red and blue.
Structured Settlements (SB
5513) — Lowering the age limit for lump-sum buyouts from 50 to 18.
All of these bills
— which are in Senate Rules and could get floor votes at any time — aim to
cut employers' rates in our already
relatively inexpensive system by having fewer injured workers qualify for
benefits and cutting the benefits for those who do. The end result: more and
more debilitated workers wind up living in poverty and on public assistance.
As this week's NPR
report concludes, "Employers have found someone else to foot the bill for
workplace accidents: American taxpayers, who shell out tens of billions of
dollars a year through Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare and
Medicaid for lost wages and medical costs not covered by workers' comp."
passes minimum wage, sick leave bills
We learned two
important things on Tuesday:
1) Democratic state
representatives believe that people who earn the lowest legal wage in
Washington deserve a raise and shouldn't have to sacrifice their paycheck
every time they or their kids get sick.
2) Republican state
representatives really, really… really… don't like either of those ideas.
The House voted on
strict party lines, 51-46 — twice — to approve HB
1355, increasing the state's minimum wage to $12/hour over four years and HB
1356 to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. But not before debating
more than a dozen amendments by Republicans to restrict both policies or
exempt various workers — teens, farm workers, "trainees," tipped workers,
etc. One amendment would have repealed minimum wage increases approved
in Seattle, SeaTac and any other city, county or port district. Those
amendments were all rejected.
vast majority of people at that bottom economic rung are adults, the majority
of whom are women and some of whom have children" said HB 1355 sponsor Rep.
Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle). "This has an impact on people who are trying hard
to make ends meet… (and) when you give people who are earning minimum wage a
raise, those dollars go right back into the economy."
mom or dad should be forced to choose between staying home with a sick child
and putting food on the table at the end of the month," said Rep. Laurie
Jinkins (D-Tacoma), prime sponsor of HB 1356. "No preschool teacher or grocery
store worker should be forced to choose between the threat of losing their job
or going to work ill and infecting children or customers. Passing Sick and
Safe Leave is common sense, good for public health, good for families and good
for the economy."
(Check out "House
action on wages, sick leave applauded" here at The Stand for kudos from
workers and other legislative and Congressional leaders.)
Both bills now head
to the Republican-controlled Senate, where they face opposition but also
wariness that the measures are so popular that they could inspire both
backlash and ballot initiative. If that happens, past experience and current
polling suggest that the public may go even further than these relatively
'unclean' transportation package
In the other
Washington, a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security was narrowly
averted this week. Republicans had initially refused to pass a "clean"
funding bill stripped of language intended to block actions by executive
familiar? In D.C., it was immigration. In Olympia, it's climate change.
Rather than passing
a clean transportation funding bill, the Republican-controlled Senate advanced
one this week that ties desperately needed transportation revenue to language
blocking actions by the governor from regulating carbon emissions.
On the positive
side, the Senate did something it hadn't done in the past two years: vote on a
transportation funding package. The $15 billion plan, funded primarily through
a 11.7-cent gas tax increase, was approved on a 27-22 vote Tuesday, with seven
Democrats joining most Republicans voting "yes" and six Republicans joining
most Democrats in voting "no." The unusual split was the largely the result of
Democratic opposition to "poison pills" that kill transit funding if the
governor takes any action to reduce carbon emissions over the next 16 years
and an all-or-nothing clause that kills the package unless six policy bills,
including two relaxing environmental standards, all pass.
state's hopes for a more reliable, less clogged transportation system to a
false ideological choice hampers our ability to make real compromises," wrote
Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) in
a column here at The Stand. "We don't have to choose between clean air and
Labor Council President Jeff Johnson echoed
those concerns and called on the House to negotiate the removal of
divisive, ideological language from the desperately needed package.
"Given our state's
need for improving our transportation infrastructure," he said, "the WSLC is
hopeful that substantive negotiations will take place that result in a clean
transportation package that meets our needs for completing key economic
corridors; maintaining and preserving our roads, highways, and bridges;
improving public safety; increasing funding for transit and multi-modal forms
of transportation; and cleaning up our environment, while leaving in place the
tools we need as a state to address the disruptive impacts of climate change."