SACRAMENTO — Players for professional sports teams based outside of California would be barred from filing compensation claims for job-related injuries under proposed legislation supported by owners of football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer franchises.
A bill unveiled Monday by Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Henry Perea (D-Fresno) would ban retired athletes from seeking workers' compensation benefits from California courts after they've played relatively few games in California stadiums and arenas during their careers.
The proposal, AB 1309, is expected to be one of the most hotly debated issues of the legislative session, with team owners lining up against the players' unions and their labor allies.
The bill, said Perea, is expected to be a "starting point" for a lively legislative debate over whether claims from out-of-state retired players represent abuse of the California workers' compensation system and wind up hitting all California employers with higher premiums and surcharges that pay for outstanding claims left by failed insurance companies.
"It's a question of fairness," Perea said.
Workers' compensation is 100% employer funded and does not depend on taxpayers' support.
The cost argument is phony, countered Richard Berthelsen, a consulting lawyer with the National Football League Players Assn. A prorated share of a team's workers' compensation bill is calculated into athletes' salary caps, so, in effect, they're paying for their own insurance coverage, Berthelsen contended. "They pay for their own benefits," he said.
Perea's bill would affect professional athletes from only the five big sports and not members of other professions whose work takes them from state to state, such as horse racing jockeys, truck drivers and salesmen. It would bar the filing of claims for cumulative trauma — caused by years of stress and pounding on a body rather than a broken bone or other specific injury — unless a player worked at least 90 days in California during the year prior to seeking benefits.
California is the only state that makes it relatively easy for long-retired players to claim cumulative trauma injuries. About 4,500 out-of-state players have won judgments or settlements since the early 1980s, according to a study commissioned by the professional sports leagues.
The bill, if it should become law, would apply to thousands of out-of-state athletes' claims currently pending before California workers' compensation judges.
Perea's legislation, by restricting benefits only for professional athletes, is potentially unfair, labor officials argued.
Regardless of whether they play for out-of-state teams, said Angie Wei, legislative director of the California Labor Federation, "these players are workers and they deserve to have access to their benefits. They work for short durations of time at an intense level and get injured."