Some Relief in Sight for Injured Workers

California may set some interesting, progressive trends for the nation, but it is a disgraceful pattern-setter when it comes to helping disabled or unemployed workers.

Ever since Gov. George Deukmejian took office in 1983, he has used his veto power to block every legislative attempt to raise benefits for both the unemployed and workers injured on the job. He also opposed a badly needed increase in the minimum wage, although a state agency last year was able to boost it anyway to a still inadequate $4.25 an hour.

However, prospects are bright that finally something might be done soon to at least partly remedy the failure of the state to increase some assistance to disabled workers.

The workers' compensation system was started in California in 1917. The idea was to help workers injured on the job regardless of whether company negligence or the worker was responsible.

Since then, employers and insurance companies usually have battled every attempt to give workers reasonable benefits. Now, for the first time in years, quiet, intense negotiations are going on in Sacramento offering real hope for a significant increase in the maximum weekly temporary benefits a disabled worker can receive.

Representatives of employers, insurance companies, Deukmejian and the California Labor Federation are said to be near agreement on a plan designed to reform the state's $7.4-billion workers' compensation program.

If agreement is reached, the Legislature and the governor are almost certain to approve the proposed reforms--unless some doctors and lawyers manage somehow to scuttle them to protect their hefty income from the worker protection program.

The proposals include a plan to boost the present $224-a-week maximum temporary disability benefits to $465, which is 100% of the projected 1989 state average weekly wage. Future benefit increases also will be based on the same average.

In the unlikely event that the talks collapse, injured workers might get help from a proposal by state Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles). He has introduced a constitutional amendment that would require the same benefits, based on the average weekly wage.

With Greene's plan, the benefit level would be fixed in the Constitution. In any event, just the threat of it may encourage voluntary agreement to reform the workers' compensation system.

The benefit increase being discussed would be linked to cost cutting in the system, cuts employers and the governor say should pay for most of the workers' increased benefits. The danger is that excessive cuts would end up hurting rather than helping the majority of injured workers.

The reforms will be designed to reduce the amount of litigation now involved when workers seek benefits.

For instance, limits might be placed on the unsavory practice of employers and insurance companies hiring doctors to say a worker's injuries are minimal, while other doctors are hired by workers' attorneys to say their clients are entitled to maximum benefits.

The benefit level hasn't been raised since Deukmejian took office because he has promised to veto any increase not acceptable to labor and the employers, and the two sides haven't agreed on increases since the administration of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

As a result, the state's present $224 maximum temporary disability benefits are ridiculously low. Only four states have lower benefits.

There is widespread belief, though, that Deukmejian really means that employers--his strong political allies--must approve an increase before he will sign a benefit hike passed by the Legislature.

Greene, chairman of the Senate Committee on Industrial Relations, contends that injured workers have been "defenseless hostages in the workers' compensation wars over who is responsible for the high costs of the program."

Employers, insurance companies, lawyers and the medical profession each blame the others for the costs that continue to increase even though benefits have stagnated.

A year ago, a coalition of insurance companies and other businesses put blame for the high costs of helping workers on the increase in stress-related disability claims, which workers are often urged to make by lawyers who solicit cases through extensive advertising campaigns.

There has been a major increase in the number of stress cases. But they still make up only 2.5% of all workers' compensation cases and only 4% of the total costs of the system.

Lawyers for workers say much of the blame for the rising benefit costs rests on insurance companies and employers who unfairly fight workers' legitimate benefit claims, resulting in expensive litigation.

And many experts charge that doctors and hospitals are the culprits responsible for the high costs of the relatively low benefits to workers. Certainly, increases in medical costs far outpace the general rise in living costs.

There is no argument, though, that workers' compensation premiums paid by employers to insurance companies are soaring, going up 49% in the past five years alone.

Obviously, the system needs reform. But equally obvious is the fact that workers are entitled to decent benefits without endless litigation. California should be an example for the rest of the country, not an embarrassment.

It would be tragic if feuding doctors, lawyers, insurance companies, employers and labor representatives don't achieve those goals after squabbling among themselves for so many years over who is to blame.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World