Governor appoints panel to look at workers' comp

SALEM - Governor John Kitzhaber has called together a panel of representatives from organized labor and management to talk about changing Oregon's workers' compensation system.

"I understand the governor and Gene Derfler (state senator) will kick it off and that people from the workers' comp agency will be in attendance," said Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO who is one of three labor representatives on the panel.

The others are Bob Shiprack, executive secretary of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, and Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Representing management will be Dan Harmon of Hoffman Construction, Lisa Trussell of Associated Oregon Industries, and John Egge of Milwaukie Plumbing.

The group met Jan. 4-5, but the outcome of those gatherings was not available at press time.

"I don't think we'll get everything accomplished in two meetings," Nesbitt said, but he did confirm that reforming the workers' compensation system is the top agenda item. He said any changes the panel agrees to will be forwarded to the Management-Labor Advisory Council on Workers'Compensation (MLAC).

Nesbitt appointed an "advisory committee" of his own from affiliates of the state labor federation to provide guidance in the discussions. That committee will consist of federation Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt; State Representative Diane Rosenbaum of Communications Workers Local 7901; John Kirkpatrick of Painters District Council 5, and Pat West of the Fire Fighters. All four have served at one time or another on MLAC.

MLAC, originally known as the "Mahonia Hall Group," was created informally by Governor Neil Goldschmidt to draft the 1990 workers' comp reforms. It was then put into statute in Senate Bill 1197 as a 14-member committee to advise the director and the Legislature on matters concerning workers' compensation.

The committee was reduced to 10 members in SB 369, passed during the 1995 legislative session. Members include five from labor and five from management.

Last September, however, Kitzhaber disbanded the committee. He plans to make new appointments later this year.

In Shiprack's view, MLAC simply "broke down."

"I think this (special meeting) is an effort by the governor to get MLAC back on track; to review some legislative concepts and to review a very short list of comp issues that labor and management would like to see addressed next session," Shiprack said.

MLAC is charged by law with providing a forum for business and labor to come together to explore and resolve issues involving workers' compensation.

For years labor representatives have complained that legislative reforms have shut too many injured workers out of the system in an effort to cut costs. (Employers have saved nearly $5 billion in workers' comp insurance premiums since 1990.)

Management is reluctant to make any changes, arguing that benefits to injured workers are up, premiums are down and that the Oregon reform model has been copied and praised nationwide. However, last November the Oregon Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that challenges the constitutionality of the workers' comp system as it relates to the "exclusive remedy" provision in the law.

The court's ruling will have a huge impact on how injured workers are treated and how the system operates in the future.

January 7, 2000 issue

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