By Jonathan Kaminsky Associated Press
OLYMPIA — Three contentious measures intended to save businesses money by changing workers’ compensation rules were passed by the Washington state Senate on Monday.
The measures are emblematic of the more conservative agenda of the new Senate majority, which consists of 23 Republicans and two Democrats and which holds a one-vote edge in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
One of the bills, Senate Bill 5128, would overhaul the voluntary “compromise-and-release” settlement agreement system for injured workers first approved by the Legislature in 2011. Both that bill and Senate Bill 5112, which would help businesses move injured workers through rehabilitation more quickly by allowing them to schedule medical evaluations, passed by votes of 25-24.
A third measure, Senate Bill 5127, which would lower the age of those eligible for settlements as they exist under current rules, passed 30-19 after an amendment lowered the age from 55 to 40 instead of removing the age restriction entirely.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said that taken together, the legislation shows his caucus’ focus on bringing more jobs to the state.
“We would rather see the money go to increased wages or more employees than higher taxes” for business, he said.
Labor advocates and Democratic lawmakers said the changes would mean lesser benefits for workers and would put taxpayers on the hook when an injured worker’s settlement cash runs out.
“It shifts liability from employers to taxpayers, let’s not kid ourselves,” said Sen. Steve Conway, D-South Tacoma.
The proposed changes to the workers’ compensation system come in the wake of broad measures passed in 2011 meant to rein in costs to a system widely viewed as overburdened.
The centerpiece of that legislation was for the first time making available “compromise and release” settlements to injured workers, but only for those aged 55 and older, with the age limit dropping to 50 by 2016. Advocates for further changes maintain that not enough of those settlement agreements have received approval from the state.
The state’s Department of Labor and Industries recently proposed a series of tax increases, mostly aimed at employers, to raise $1.1 billion over the next decade in order to further shore up its reserves.
The proposed measures are intended to avoid such tax increases while putting the state’s workers’ compensation system on firmer financial footing going forward.
One of the bills passed Monday, SB 5127, would be made moot by adoption of the broader SB 5128. Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, who is spearheading the Senate Republican workers’ compensation efforts, said passing both measures will leave the Democratic-controlled House with more options to consider.
The more limited scope of SB 5127, however, was not enough to gain the support of Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle.
“It won’t accomplish workers who are injured becoming healthy employees quicker,” he said. “It won’t get them back to work and keep their families in the middle class.”
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