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If workers comp bill passes, ‘huge cost' facing employers

January 26, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Passage of a bill ping-ponging between the state Senate and Assembly chambers here could result in a $1.5 billion increase in insurance company payouts to injured workers.

It would be the first increase mandated by the Legislature since the early 1990s.

If it passes, the bill would drive up workers' compensation insurance premiums for Imperial Valley employers.

Local farmers have been warned of the Democratic-penned bill by the Western Growers Association and other farmers' groups.

The California Chamber of Commerce and non-farm-related employer groups have sounded their own alarm.

Chamber spokeswoman Kim Mattoch said the bill — introduced in the Senate by Bay area state Sen. John Burton, a Democrat — could create a "huge cost" for employers without reforming the workers' compensation system.

Exact numbers of the "high cost" have yet to be decided.

Burton wanted $3 billion more in payouts but Sacramento sources said Gov. Gray Davis wants to lop off $1.5 billion from that number before he will sign anything.


Chamber policy specialist Dominic DiMare said the good part of Burton's bill is the possibility workers injured on the job would receive more money for their claims.

"However, the impact of the increased benefits to the worker could be lessened because there are so many systemic costs involved in the system," he said.

For example, when an injured worker gets a bigger settlement or award, the lawyer representing that worker gets more money.

Since the attorney's pay scale is set up on a percentage basis "they have an incentive to drive up the cost of every claim," DiMare said.

He added, "One of the longtime amendments that we have asked for in the past is something to address the subjective nature of evaluating an injury."

DiMare said injuries are evaluated by doctors on a subjective scale, so a person with a broken leg could receive a higher disability rating than another person with a broken leg working in the same industry. There is no language in the current version of the bill that addresses those concerns.

On the other side of the issue, workers' rights groups praise the bill for delivering larger benefits to injured workers.

Even DiMare said, "We don't want to screw workers; we want them to get more."

The flip side is if costs to employers rise too high, local farmers or other employers might be inclined to forgo hiring physical labor if mechanical help can be utilized.

Increased costs associated with workers' compensation claims have already caused some local corn growers to invest in mechanical corn pullers instead of hiring manual labor.

Matt Hester of Torrence Farm Implements in Heber said farm equipment manufacturers are always working on machines to harvest every sort of imaginable produce.

"It's just a matter of getting one to do it right," he said.

If the equipment manufacturers devise mechanical ways to harvest lettuce or cantaloupes, the only workers who will be worrying about injury are those operating the machines.

A version of Burton's bill has been approved by the state Senate and the Assembly despite votes against it by Imperial Valley representatives Sen. Jim Battin, R-La Quinta, and Assemblyman David Kelley, R-Idyllwild.

On Friday afternoon, staffers in Burton's office said there was some wrangling going on in the Assembly as to the final wording of the bill.

That wrangling turned out to be "high-level negotiations" involving staffers from Davis' office, Legislative leaders and labor representatives, according to the Capitol news service Flash Reports.

Davis is insisting on major concessions before he will support the latest benefit-increase plan. He has vetoed similar legislation in the past.

As a result of the negotiations, Burton plans to scrap the Senate version of the bill he authored.

Assemblyman Thomas Calderon, D-Montebello, will insert a revised version of Burton's bill in AB 749.

Sacramento lawmakers tack on legislation to the shells of old bills because it is easier than reintroducing new legislation.

Burton will be listed as co-sponsor on AB 749.

A staffer in Battin's office said the senator opposed the legislation as introduced by Burton due to concerns that workers could be laid off by employers forced to pay higher insurance premiums.

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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