Week of February 9, 2015

Week 5 Legislative Update 

In a week where the big legislative news was the unveiling of a bipartisan $15 billion transportation plan, financed by a phased-on 11.7 cent per gallon increase in the state’s gas tax, several workers’ compensation bills we’ve been working on received further action. Here are some top highlights, with a look ahead to next week:

 “Three Way” emerges from Senate Commerce & Labor committee

For the first time in probably a generation, a bill to offer a private option in Washington’s workers’ compensation system, SB 5420, emerged from a policy committee for further consideration. Don’t call your broker just yet, however. The bill, sponsored by Sen. (and committee chair) Michael Baumgartner, is unlikely to go much further in the process. Although the option to purchase private insurance has been a long-held desire of the state’s business community, the proposal would face insurmountable opposition in the House of Representatives and Governor’s office.

 Benefit accuracy & consistency proposal advances

Also voted out of the Senate Commerce & Labor committee this week was WSIA leading priority SB 5510, which would bring four-quarter averaging and a 66.67% flat rate to the wage replacement calculation. Although controversial and hotly debated during the committee vote, by virtue of coming out of committee the proposal remains alive for further consideration in the process.

 Occupational disease, Tobin fix, structured settlements see action

WSIA-supported fixes to the state’s occupational disease statute, SB 5509, was heard in the Senate committee on Monday and voted out on Wednesday, as was the bill to fix the Tobin decision limiting third party recovery, SB 5508. Senate Bill 5513, meanwhile, eliminating age restrictions on the structured settlements program, was heard in committee on Wednesday, drawing support from employer representatives and predictable opposition from unions and the trial lawyers’ association.

 Group self-insurance also advances

Senate Bill 5331, sponsored by Sen. John Braun, R-Chehalis, also cleared the Senate Commerce & Labor committee on Wednesday. SB 5331 would allow small private sector group self-insurance, subject to L&I’s regulatory oversight for capital and insolvency protections.

 L&I’s request bills moving

Two bills of interest to WSIA brought forward by the Department of Labor & Industries received action. HB 1496, the Department’s Preferred Worker/Vocational Rehabilitation enhancement bill, was voted out of the House Labor Committee on Wednesday, while the Senate version, SB 5451, is scheduled for a vote next week. Additionally, SB 5468, which would allow L&I to spend money without legislative appropriation for agreed-to projects for self-insured employers, which WSIA supports, was heard on Wednesday and set for a committee vote next Wednesday.

 Adverse bills on penalties, attorneys’ fees, presumptive occupational disease also advance

In the House Labor Committee this week, House Bills 1602, 1603, and 1604 were each voted out of committee, expanding coverage of the firefighters’ occupational disease presumption to EMTs (1602) and fire investigators (1603) and mandating an L&I report on a potential hazardous exposure reporting requirement for firefighters (1604). Additionally, a bill awarding claimant attorney’s fees in treatment cases at the Board advanced (HB 1611), as well as a bill increasing the penalties on self-insureds for benefit delays for orders on appeal (HB 1612). WSIA opposed each of these in committee, and will continue to work that they be set aside as the session continues.

 Early win for WSIA

WSIA saw an early legislative victory this week, helping force an amendment to HB 1194, the bill that would have created a special benefit for the surviving spouses of law enforcement and firefighters who died due to on-the-job injury or disease, allowing these surviving spouses uniquely to continue to receive a workers’ comp pension despite remarriage. As the matter was voted out of committee on Wednesday, it was amended to continue to provide the cash value of this benefit to surviving spouses, but funded out of the police and fire fighters’ retirement system, not out of the workers’ compensation system.   

 Looking ahead to next week

Next Friday, February 20th, is the cutoff for non-fiscal or non-transportation bills to be voted out of their committee in order to remain eligible for further consideration. We expect the House and Senate committees to spend most of their meeting time debating and voting remaining bills on their docket out. Most significant bills, pro and con, have already come out of committee. Of the remaining bills left for public hearing, SB 5586, sponsored by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, is scheduled for hearing on Wednesday. The bill prohibits the Department from taking a social security retirement offset for workers who applied for SSI prior to their date of injury or were receiving SSI prior to injury, on the theory that the worker’s time loss occurred within the narrow window provided by federal law, on top of his or her SSI benefits.