Local lawmakers split on workers’ comp deal

3 House members voted against compromise, 3 for it

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Clark County’s House members split 3-3 Monday in a high-stakes vote on a plan to reform the state workers’ compensation system, with only one Democrat, Rep. Jim Moeller of Vancouver, voting in favor of the compromise bill.

Passage of the measure on a 69-26 House vote Monday and on a 35-12 Senate vote Tuesday cleared a major roadblock standing in the way of the Legislature’s adjournment.

The Senate and most Republicans supported a sweeping change sought by businesses that would have allowed injured workers to accept voluntary lump-sum payments in lieu of long-term disability pensions. Labor unions opposed the change. A compromise, brokered by Gov. Chris Gregoire, was reached over the weekend.

Even Moeller had mixed feelings about the bill.

“I’m opposed to lump-sum buyouts, period,” he told The Columbian two weeks ago. “I think the vast majority of our caucus is also opposed. It’s a nonstarter. My objection is, they place the workers at a disadvantage.”

Injured workers “may not have received a paycheck for six months or a year,” Moeller said. “They have house payments to make. A lump-sum payment can look very attractive.” But once that money is gone, he said, many workers likely would turn to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps or Medicaid.

On Monday, as House Democratic leaders counted noses to get to the 30 votes they needed for a caucus majority, Moeller said he hadn’t changed his view.

“I’m still opposed to lump-sum payments and this is not a lump-sum payment,” he said “It’s a structured payment system.” Under the measure, workers 55 and older could opt to receive compensation for job-related injuries in a series of payments over time. Eventually the option would be available to workers 50 or older.

Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said his main concern with the original Senate bill was “the shifting of risk and liability to the taxpayer.”

“If a person takes the lump sum and uses it all up, that person almost certainly will end up using social services funded by taxpayers,” he told The Columbian recently.

On Monday, Probst voted against the workers’ comp reform.

“The bill is a true compromise, with both good and bad elements, but it still shifts risk and costs to the taxpaying public at large,” he said. That concern “was not fully addressed” in the compromise bill, he said, so in the end, “despite significant progress made in the negotiations, I still felt obligated to vote no.”

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, who was appointed to the Legislature in April, said she voted against the measure because she was not convinced that the current workers’ compensation system needed a major overhaul of the type the bill proposed.

Wylie, who has worked as a city manager of Tukwila and as a risk manager for Multnomah County in Oregon, said her local government experience taught her that time to control worker injury claims is at the beginning of the process.

“You need to make sure accidents don’t happen on the front end, that workers get the treatment they need early on, and that when they come back to work there’s something for them to do, so people can have their pride and their values affirmed. A worker who stays home for six months may never come back to work ever again.”

In the end, she said Monday, “There is still not enough emphasis on injury prevention and return to work effort” in the bill. “Prevention and claims management is where the largest costs and the largest opportunities are.”

She also questioned the studies on which the push for reform were based. “I still seek an explanation to the reality that a state with a grossly reduced timber industry and reduced heavy manufacturing has enough injured workers on long-term permanent disability to sink a system that has employees as well as employers paying premiums,” she said.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, voted against the bill, parting company with his Clark County colleagues, Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama and Rep. Ann Rivers of La Center. Harris told The Columbian in April that his biggest disappointment at the end of the Legislature’s regular session was that lawmakers had not passed workers’ compensation reform to ease the burden on business owners.

“I feel like this bill is a positive improvement,” Harris said after the vote Monday. “However, the structured settlement agreements are uncharted territory. I am unsure as to whether or not we will see the actual savings they are projecting.”

Orcutt had supported the Senate bill, saying he believed it contained adequate safeguards to prevent settlements that put injured workers at a disadvantage.

“Everything in that bill that I see is either a worker protection or some sort of a constraint on employers,” he told The Columbian in April.

In Tuesday’s Senate vote, Sens. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, and Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, supported the bill, while Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, voted no.