Washington workers’ comp: Fending off attacks on the system

Like other states in the ProPublica report [See related story], Washington has seen its workers’ comp premiums fall—from $3.81 for every $100 of wages in 1988 to $2.00 today.

David Groves, communications director at the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, says in part that’s because workplaces have gotten safer, and the system has gotten better at returning workers to work.

“We think we have overall a good system,” Groves said.

But in recent years, Republican legislators have pushed the same kinds of cuts to workers comp benefits as other states. The union movement has been able to prevent those bills from passing, with one exception.

In 2011, in the depths of the recession, the public workers’ comp agency run by the state Bureau of Labor and Industries had lost assets in the financial market downturn, and its reserve fund was precariously low. Then-governor Christine Gregoire asked lawmakers to pass reforms to save money and build up reserves without raising rates. Organized labor agreed with most of the reforms, but lost a hard fight against one: allowing injured workers to accept lump-sum payments instead of monthly benefits. WSLC objected that it would be in workers’ best financial interest long-term to get the payments over time, but by the time they were in settlement talks, they’re often desperate and have been out of work for months. WSLC was able to get the voluntary settlements limited to workers age 50 and over.

But ever since then, Republican lawmakers and business interests have pushed to eliminate that age limit and expand the buyouts, and to cut and cap benefits, restrict eligibility, and give employers control over which doctors injured workers use. So far, none of those proposals have passed, but Groves says WSLC has to stay vigilant.

And workers’ comp is as political in Washington as elsewhere: Rob McKenna, 2012  Republican candidate for governor, campaigned to privatize the state workers’ comp system, a proposal voters soundly rejected in an earlier ballot measure.

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