State Senate OKs Hike in Workers' Comp Pay


The state Senate granted organized labor one of its biggest wishes Thursday, passing a bill to dramatically raise benefits for employees injured on the job.

The upper chamber also gave final legislative approval and sent to Gov. Gray Davis a bill restricting handgun buyers to the purchase of no more than one a month.

Action on the two bills came as the Senate hurried to conclude business and adjourn for the long holiday weekend.

The Senate's dominant Democrats prevailed over Republicans 22-13 to send the workers' compensation bill to the Assembly. Prospects for approval there are considered favorable.

The measure, a top priority for labor--which spent millions last year to help elect the Democrats who control state government--would substantially beef up cash benefits to injured workers. Some of those benefits have not been raised since 1982.

Maximum weekly temporary disability benefits, for example, would be indexed to the state's average weekly wage of $650 per worker. Typically, this would boost an injured employee's cash compensation to $651 a week from the current $490, said state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente), who introduced the bill.

The legislation would also boost weekly benefits for workers who suffer permanent partial disability, such as a severed finger. Currently, payments range from $140 to $230. The new maximum would be $270.

"Injured workers need and deserve a benefit increase," Solis, who heads the Senate Industrial Relations Committee, told the upper house.

Republicans, echoing concerns of major employers, charged that the legislation would jeopardize landmark reforms that saved an out of control workers' compensation system from collapse in 1993.

Those reforms have been praised for saving employers billions in workers' compensation insurance premiums that had threatened to bankrupt some businesses and reportedly chased others out of California.

Although it was not written into the law at the time, there was an agreement between labor and business that the savings would be split equally between employers and injured workers.

State Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), an ally of labor and business interests who helped write the 1993 reforms, told the Senate that "employers have benefited over the past five years."

"This is the year to pass the benefit increase. The workers deserve it," he said.

Republicans charged that the bill provides no benefits for employers and amounted to a huge tax increase on businesses. "It is an approximately $3-billion increase in the costs of employers of California," said Ross Johnson of Irvine, leader of the Senate's minority Republicans.

Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) cautioned against "unwinding what we did in 1993. We must stop here and take a look at this."

Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, accused Johnson and other opponents, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Assn., of exaggerating the cost of the measure.

"The fact is, the best benefits we got in 1993 were wholly funded by reducing benefits in other areas," Rankin said.

Solis insisted that she had made "major, major compromises" in her bill to satisfy employers, but said more compromises remain to be struck in the Assembly to obtain the support of business.

Davis, who was heavily supported by labor during his campaign, has not indicated a position on the Solis bill.

Neither has he made his views clear on the "one gun a month" bill, AB 202, by Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) that cleared the Senate on Thursday. The governor has promised to sign separate legislation tightening controls on assault guns.

If Davis signs it, the Knox bill--modeled on a Virginia statute and a new Los Angeles ordinance--would take effect Jan. 1.

The Senate approved the bill 21 to 14, the bare margin required.

There has been no California limit on the number of guns a person can buy. Knox and others argue that restricting the volume of guns sold will eventually constrict the flow of firearms onto the streets.

They contend that limiting the purchase of pistols to one a month will curb "straw deals" in which a legal purchaser buys many guns and then illegally sells them to criminals and children.

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