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Big Changes For Workers’ Comp? Washington State Senate Bends To Business Lobby

As the showdown between Governor Scott Walker and Labor activists in Wisconsin continues to rivet the nation, one thing has become clear: Anti-labor forces across the country are using spiraling budget debt to justify attacks on established labor law.  Washington State is no different.

Last week, the Washington State Senate passed a bill that would radically change they way the state’s workers’ compensation fund would operate.  Many Seattle and Washington observers have praised the ostensible goal of the bill: establishing an option for injured workers to take a lump sum settlement in lieu of an extended dispensation of compensation funds.

On the surface, this all sounds great.  The bill would provide more flexibility for workers and help the system to achieve closure in many claims that tend to languish for years.  As Komo News notes, the “major expenses of the system come from only 8 percent of all claims, which involve workers who are receiving benefits for a prolonged period of time or have lifetime pensions.”  Bert Caldwell of the Spokesman-Review writes “Gregoire’s proposal would make that option available to workers age 55 and older who many not be retrainable and might prefer a reduced stipend that allows them to go their own way and possibly find new work without worrying that a dollar earned is a dollar out of their pension.”

As with many pieces of proposed legislation, the early part of the Bill presents a good compromise for employers and workers.  However, toward the end of the bill, there are startling proposals which place undue burdens on the workers of Washington state.

Buried in the back of the bill is a section that may limit the ability for workers to be compensated for separate and totally unrelated injuries, merely because they were unfortunate enough to have been injured multiple times.  Essentially, this vaguely worded section would make new injuries to body parts that were previously asymptomatic considered part of a prior injury and therefore unrelated to the new injury.  This would deny legitimate claims without sufficient examination, even if the worker is working for a completely different employer.

Another interesting tidbit from the end of the bill provides a subsidy for employers to pay their own workers’ wages.  While this might sound appealing, trudging further into this provision reveals a telling caveat: “Employers may collect up to one-half the fund assessment from workers.”  Come again?  This section basically requires workers to pay for half of their own salaries—effectively making workers subsidize their own wages.  In fact, this section is likely unlawful in relation to the Washington Minimum Wage Act.

Like many state bills bent on reducing deficits by targeting “entitlements” for workers, this proposed measure would threaten basic workers’ rights across the state of Washington.  Injured workers should seek out a Washington Workers’ compensation attorney who is ready to protect their basic right to compensation in the face of a workplace injury.

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Emery Reddy