Most stories covering the Budget Bill signing in Olympia last week echoed the same description of our Governor: somber, serious, pained… These descriptions of Governor Gregoire at the Bill signing ceremony are then linked to the deep and painful cuts in education and public services inscribed in the bill. Many parts of this bill have many folks worried, not in the least the workers of Washington State.
A landmark feature of the budget bill was a dramatic overhaul of the Washington Workers’ Compensation System. Seattle and Washington Workers’ Compensation attorneys, Labor Rights Activists, and workers are now watching to see how this decidedly “pro-business” reform actually affects the claims process of injured workers.
As we have chronicled here in the Emery Reddy blog, the bill was the result of a budget crisis emerging from a perfect storm of economic factors: loss of revenue, increased insurance costs, higher unemployment, and, of course, the Great Recession. Businesses that by law contribute to the workers’ compensation system argued they were about to face an average rate increase of 12 percent in the coming year. This statistic alone sent corporate lobbyists into a frenzy in Olympia. Now that the bill is law, the Department of Labor & Industries predicts the next rate change to be less than ten percent, although they cannot predict with accuracy what the exact rate will be.
Business leaders contend that if the rates are not reduced in a tangible manner, then they will begin lobbying for even more radical changes in the system.
Beyond the short-term worries of business leaders in a wobbly economy, the most pressing issue that provoked the bill was concerns over the long-term viability of the system at large. Initially, the idea of lump-sum financial settlements as a solution to long-term, financially-draining pensions, especially for workers over 55, was touted as the path to financial stability. However, Labor Groups protested that such settlements over took advantage of vulnerable, injured workers who might accept such a lump-sum, even if it did not meet their long term medical costs.
Eventually, a compromise was reached: the system will allow limited settlements paid over a set amount of time. While Labor groups still worried that such settlements might intimidate a worker into accepting a settlement below their entitled benefit.
We will watch as this Bill is implemented and report on how these changes will affect you and your claims process. Injured workers should seek the advice of a Washington Workers’ Compensation Lawyer who understands the nuances of this bill and can advise them accordingly. Workers’ Compensation Law is complex, but the path for the worker seeking lawful benefits should be charted by an expert.