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Workers’ Comp Under Attack by Big Business

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Washington has one of the most efficient and cost effective workers’ compensation programs in the nation. Individuals with claims may not appreciate this, but the truth is that most other states have much more limited benefits available to injured workers and the trend in many states is to cut back benefits already available.

Washington’s Industrial Insurance Act, RCW Title 51, controls what benefits are available, who is eligible, and how claims are filed and managed. Any change to Title 51 must be approved and enacted by the Washington State legislature and signed into law by the governor. It is not a simple process, but one that deep-pocketed employers and business groups pursue with some regularity. This year is no different.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner (R – Spokane) recently proposed Senate Bill (SB) 5822. If enacted, this sweeping bill would:

  • Allow employers and the Department of Labor and Industries to recover funds from a personal injury settlement for which they have not paid any benefit (pain and suffering);
  • Shorten the deadline for filing occupational disease claims and restrict the types of conditions allowable;
  • Remove most oversight by the Department of Labor & Industries for large, self-insured employers;
  • Give self-insured employers 60 to 120 days to approve or reject an injured workers’ claim for benefits, down from the current 14 days;
  • Extend “compromise and release” settlement to all workers in an effort to save money for employers.

SB 5822 would require that injured workers file occupational disease claims within one year of first diagnosis, the date of first treatment, or the date first restricted from work activities, whichever is earliest — even if they don’t know the problem is related to work! Current law gives workers two years from when they are notified in writing by their doctor that they have an occupational disease and should file a claim.

Further, under SB 5822, medical conditions, such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and arthritis, can be rejected because people can develop these conditions without having worked. This is so even if your doctor says the condition is related directly to the activities of your particular job. In 1986, the Washington Supreme Court in a repetitive tin-snips case said the resulting arthritic condition must be covered by L&I even though people may develop arthritis for reasons unrelated to employment. SB 5822 seeks to overturn that Supreme Court decision.

SB 5822 is an effort to reduce and restrict benefits for vulnerable injured workers in order to give employers and the Department a financial and administrative windfall. Six years ago, the same groups tried to accomplish this by referendum. Voters rejected this attempt by a wide margin. Now the attempt is being made out of reach of the ballot box.

We at the Walthew Law Firm fight every day for the rights of injured workers only to see continuing efforts to limit and restrict those rights. We will oppose these efforts as we have in the past. Find and contact your state legislators and urge them to do the same.

An article by Bob Heller of The Walthew Law Firm.

Bob Heller is an attorney at The Walthew Law Firm. He has been practicing workers’ compensation law for over 30 years.

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