January 18, 2019 Legislative Update

Today marks the end of the first week of the 2019 Legislative session.

In the workers' compensation and workplace safety issues we are tracking, only a few bills have been formally introduced. However, our lobbying team is working behind the scenes on a handful of issues that we expect to see introduced in the next week or two. 

Here's a run-down:

Wage Calculation and Benefits

A significant wage calculation bill, SB 5217, has been introduced and is set for public hearing in the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee Tuesday morning 1/22 at 8:00 a.m.

The bill, introduced at the request of the workers' comp claimants' bar and labor unions, would replace the current system for wage calculation by adopting a system calculating the worker's monthly wage with regard to how frequently the worker is paid. Although the bill contains many details and deserves careful scrutiny for its impact on employers, in general it imposes a roughly three month average for determining wages across a variety of scenarios. 

The bill also replaces the sliding scale for determining the percentage to be applied to a worker's wages based on marital status or number of dependents, and instead imposes a 70 percent flat rate on new claims. It moreover provides new definitions for "board," "housing," "utilities," "bonus," "commission," and "health care benefits." 

Finally, for State Fund employers, the bill provides for a limited reimbursement of the worker's portion of health insurance premiums to encourage employers to continue health insurance while workers are on time loss or pension.  

Self-Insurance Matters

Although no bill has been introduced yet, WSIA is working with legislative sponsors on a couple matters related to self-insurance administration. We have proposed language to address last year's Court of Appeals decision in the Dolph case, where it was held that a self-insured employer's timely service of a department-issued closing order had no legal effect. Our amendment simply provides an optional right for self-insurers to effect valid service of a department-issued closing order, as a check on the Department potentially delaying or erring in serving the order.

In the Senate, Labor & Commerce Chair Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, has taken our Dolph "fix" and rolled it into a draft proposal with items she is interested in, including providing self-insured employers the authority (indeed, requirement) to issue their own allowance orders. This follows a recommendation by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee in a 2015 performance audit of workers' comp claims management. Sen. Keiser's draft would also convene a working group of business and labor to discuss penalty levels in the self-insurance system. 

Firefighter/Law Enforcement Occupational Disease Presumptions

As has been the case the last few sessions, and fresh off their victory last year with PTSD, unions representing law enforcement officers and firefighters are back with their proposal to add a myriad of new cancers, infections, and occupations to the current firefighter occupational disease presumption statute. 

Now that the majority party has established even larger political majorities in both the House and Senate, union proponents of this legislation know they have their best shot in years of finally passing it.

WSIA and our allies at the Association of Washington Cities and Washington State Association of Counties are working on narrowing the number of conditions potentially added to the statute to those best supported by any epidemiological study or plausible connection with job-related exposures, protect the circumstances by which such presumptions may be rebutted, and establish a scientific review panel at Labor & Industries made up of clinicians and researchers to make a recommendation on any future conditions contended for presumptive coverage. 

Somewhat tangentially related, a bill has been introduced, SB 5175, that requires Labor & Industries to adopt a rule governing the protection of firefighters from exposure to carcinogens on the job. The bill also funds up to $100,000 of protective equipment to jurisdictions adjudged to have limited resources to protect firefighters. 

Stay tuned.

Off-Duty Conduct Protections

A bill has been introduced, SB 5226, to make it a violation of the state's Law Against Discrimination to take an adverse employment action against an employee or prospective employee on the basis of lawful off-duty conduct. Although positioned as protecting employees' rights to thinks like free speech and so on, many observers believe the bill is really about protecting workers' off-duty recreational marijuana use, which may have significant implications for workplace safety and drug testing/drug use policies. WSIA is monitoring.

Next Week

Looking ahead to next week, the main action will revolve around the Senate hearing of the wage calculation bill on Tuesday. We anticipate more bills to be formally introduced, including potentially some of the matters described above.