Preview: Legislature convenes Monday amidst new challenges

Jan. 8, 2021

The 2021 session of the Washington State Legislature convenes on Monday, January 11th and is scheduled to last 105 days until April 25. Following the 2020 elections, the political composition of the Legislature this year is 28 Democrats to 20 Republicans (and one Democrat who caucuses with them) in the Senate, and 57 Democrats to 41 Republicans in the House. With these majorities and with Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, progressive policy priorities will predominate. 

In an unprecedented circumstance occasioned by the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, all legislative meetings and most legislative business will occur online, with the legislative building and offices closed to the public. This will necessarily slow down most legislative processes, and leaders expect consideration and passage of less than half the bills the Legislature would consider under normal circumstances.

As a result, legislative leaders in the House and Senate have asked members to be judicious in the number of bills they introduce, and limit topics to matters such as economic and public health recovery from the coronavirus, addressing racial equality, and addressing climate change. 

Big ticket issues accordingly will sort themselves out generally into these categories, including the distribution of federal relief funds, a major effort to address unemployment benefits and employer taxes in the state's unemployment insurance system, a push to expand to state's paid family & medical leave insurance program, and Governor Jay Inslee's desire to institute a new tax on capital gains.

Set against this backdrop, we do expect consideration of a few issues closer to our purview with the Department of Labor & Industries. As the session begins, here are the top items to watch for:

  • Settlement Agreements. Senate Bill 5046 has been pre-filed for introduction by Senator Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, the chair of the Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee. The bill, which is expected to draw bi-partisan support and move through the process, would remove the requirement that workers' compensation settlement agreements be paid out according to a structured settlement or periodic payments plan, and would provide the option of settling with a lump sum payment. The change is meant to avoid the offsetting of settlement amounts for workers also receiving social security benefits, but could also provide greater flexibility to meet worker needs in other contexts as well. 
  • Wage Inflation and the Supplemental Pension Fund. Next week, legislative Republicans are expected to introduce and seek agreement on an employer community-backed measure which would address recent (and forecasted future) skyrocketing cost of living adjustments and Supplemental Pension Fund assessments by freezing the COLA for one year, switching the basis for the COLA from year-over-year increase in state's average annual wage to year-over-year change in the local Consumer Price Index, and capping the rate of growth at three percent. 
  • Worker Rights and Whistleblower Protections. The Department of Labor & Industries is set to introduce, at the request of Governor Inslee, a broad new employee rights bill partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As shown in the latest bill draft, the proposal would create a grant program for small employers to meet new safety and health requirements, establish a daily penalty alongside criminal violations for employers who ignore orders issued by the department or courts to immediately fix hazards that put workers in imminent danger, and increase protections, processes and penalties for workers who claim retaliation for exercising their rights to a safe workplace. 
  • "HELSA." Earlier this winter, Senator Keiser indicated her interest in proposing an omnibus "Health Emergency Labor Standards Act" that would kick in during any state or national public health emergency (not merely COVID-19) and would impose a sweeping array of rights and benefits for workers designated as "frontline employees." According to a description of the proposal and an early bill draft, and closest to our concerns, the measure would create a presumption of occupational disease for frontline employees during a declared health emergency involving infectious diseases. This proposal has not been prefiled as a bill, and in light of the sheer "heft" of the policies proposed in the bill and a range of competing priorities, it is unclear if or in what form it might be pursued during the session.
  •  Independent Medical Examinations. After the introduction last year of a bill proposing to significantly restrict and regulate the scheduling and conduct of independent medical examinations, a bipartisan working group was formed at the Department of Labor & Industries to discuss solutions to concerns with IMEs. That working group met over the course of the summer, and returned a report to the Legislature that documented the significant amount of work underway to address stakeholder concerns and improve IMEs. The report did not call for any further legislation. Despite a lack of consensus around new legislation, Senator Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, the original sponsor of last year's bill, has prefiled Senate Bill 5102 which appears to reprise the more problematic elements of last year's proposal.

Committee hearings and legislative action will all be broadcast this session on, and opportunities to testify at hearings will occur through zoom and require tight coordination with legislative staff. WSIA members interested in participating in hearings as they are set should get in touch with Kris Tefft and WSIA members who are interested in following along this session with weekly legislative updates and bill tracking should do likewise.