If you’ve ever been forced to miss work (and paychecks) because of an on-the-job injury, you’ve probably learned the hard way how precarious your family’s livelihood and quality of life can be.
You’ve also probably learned that the process for filing a workers’ compensation claim — and hopefully, getting it approved — can be formidable and intimidating. And perhaps you’ve also learned how easily an uncooperative employer can drag that process out.
But you may be surprised to learn that you are one of the reasons Washington "sucks."
Workers’ compensation benefits, deemed to be overly generous by Corporate Washington, are once again the target of legislation in Olympia. The lobbyists and legislators pushing these bills have picked up where Boeing’s Alan Mulally left off with his memorable two-word summation of Washington’s business climate, and they argue that excessive workers’ compensation costs (among many other things) are killing jobs here.
They sense momentum for their cause because of their success last year in ramming through a $200 million a year reduction in unemployment benefits as part of a so-called business competitiveness package. Plus, two straight years of workers’ compensation premium increases — although preceded by eight years of stable or reduced rates — have them sensing blood in the political waters.
But before we go slashing benefits for injured workers in the name of business competitiveness, let’s take a deep breath and try a little perspective on for size.
Is Washington really a more expensive place for employers to get workers’ compensation coverage?
The answer is a resounding "No!" In fact, by some assessments, Washington has one of the least expensive systems in the entire nation.
A 2002 state-by-state comparison by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services listed Washington as having the seventh-lowest rates in the nation. Even with the latest rate increases factored in, more than two-thirds of states have higher average workers’ compensation costs than Washington.
And let’s not forget that Washington is the only state where workers pay a portion (25 percent) of the workers’ compensation premiums. If you compare apples to apples and count only the employer share of those premiums, Washington ranks 48th in terms of workers’ compensation costs.
Our system is actually attracting businesses, not killing them. Reliant, a 50-job trucking firm, recently moved from California to Spokane and said the biggest single reason for the move was that they will pay $250,000 a year in workers’ comp premiums here compared to $750,000 there.
Not only is our state-run system inexpensive, it’s cost-effective. The same Oregon study found that Washington ranks in the top quarter of states in terms of benefits provided. Recent independent performance audits have concurred that our system provides good benefits at relatively low costs.
That said, there is always room for improvement. That’s why organized labor has agreed to participate in a new panel created by the governor to negotiate changes to our workers’ compensation system — changes that make sense for injured workers and employers.
But our system is far from broken. In fact, it’s a model for other states.
So let’s not blame the victims. People who suffer injuries at work shouldn’t be victimized a second time by politically motivated attacks on Washington’s safety net.
Rick Bender is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO,
the largest labor organization in the state.