Don’t risk middle-class safety and security by slashing safety net

March 12, 2013 

If yours is a middle-class household, no one needs to tell you how it feels to have to worry about your job security, your health coverage or your family’s future. These days, those are increasingly common concerns.

Middle-class workers are earning less, receiving reduced benefits, and watching companies outsource American jobs as a result of years of policies that have concentrated wealth and power in the top 1 percent of society.

In turn, the ranks of a middle class that was long the envy of the world are shrinking as many workers find themselves unemployed, underwater and financially insecure.

Here in Washington, the middle class is under attack in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. That committee was formerly known as the Senate Consumer Protection, Labor and Commerce Committee, but the Republicans first act upon taking over the Senate this year was to delete “consumer protection” and no other committee took up the job.

Another recent committee action was to pass bills that would shred the incentive for maintaining safe practices in workplaces across the state. The sponsors say the changes create jobs, but there is no evidence they would create any jobs at all.

Among other things, the bills would allow employees who suffer catastrophic on-the-job injuries to take a lump-sum payment in lieu of long-term compensation for serious, permanent injuries. I call it the win-the-lottery approach to workplace accidents because it likely would encourage people to gamble on their future financial needs.

A lump sum may look great to the 30-year-old who is facing financial ruin because he can no longer work and is afraid of losing his house to foreclosure. But after the lottery money is gone, the injured employee, who has likely lost major physical function, may still confront the steep costs of retraining for a new occupation and the uncertain work future disabled people too often experience

Our state Industrial Insurance program was created to provide relief for horrific accidents that tear bodies apart and sometimes cause death. We reward employers who take steps to prevent accidents and promote workplace safety with incentives.

The system provides rate rebates and lower rates to those employers. Businesses are grouped by industry and pay insurance premiums to provide partial compensation and medical care to injured workers until they are able to return to work.

Businesses that reduce the risks of injury do a good job improving workplace safety and pay lower rates. Businesses that do a poor job pay more.

To put it simply, the program is designed to prevent businesses from cutting corners or subjecting workers to unsafe practices and then discarding them once they’re broken.

Unfortunately, the GOP-sponsored bills this session would change the entire focus by shifting incentives from improving workplace safety to closing claims as quickly as possible. Reducing premiums by cutting the rights and benefits of those who are injured seems like a case of hitting a fella when he’s already down.

Proponents say the changes are necessary because businesses could face huge rate increases to make up a contingency reserve fund that was reduced by the recession. In fact, unlike most commercial insurance, Industrial Insurance premium rates were not increased last year, and the reserve fund is returning to robust health.

This Industrial Insurance reserve fund now approaches the billion-dollar mark, similar to the surplus reserves currently carried by the private health insurance companies in our state.

Many editorial voices have agreed with our state insurance commissioner’s recommendation that we reduce these private insurance company surplus funds by requiring refunds of health insurance premiums to purchasers. Instead, Republicans warn of hypothetical rate increases and vote to reduce benefits despite growing reserves.

Republicans must end this relentless attack on the middle class. Our Industrial Insurance system is a critical safety net for all employees. No one who goes to work in the morning expects to be seriously injured at work. But it happens thousands of times a year.

When it happens in this state, employees need protections for their families when they cannot work, and medical care to recover and get back on the job. Unfortunately, rather than focus on making workplaces safer and reducing injuries, Senate Republicans want to slash the safety net regardless of workplace injuries and deaths.

State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, represents Washington’s 33rd Legislative District.

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