Workers’ comp reforms are working – don’t gut them

I worked for Boeing as a machinist for 27 years – 27 years of using an impact wrench that led to severe carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger issues.

I have had 11 surgeries on my hands and arms in the past decade, and I lost my job at Boeing.

But because of Washington’s strong workers’ compensation program, I was able to receive excellent medical care, be retrained and get a job as a veterans Drug Court counselor.

The opportunity I was given to rebuild my life wouldn’t have been possible without our workers’ comp system.

That’s why I am dismayed by Senate Republicans’ blatant attempts to break this promise. We should not stand for it.

I want to tell the story that our opponents don’t talk about. Our workers’ comp program began in 1911 when employers pushed workers to give up their right to sue in the civil justice system for on-the-job injuries. In exchange, workers were guaranteed care and benefits for as long as they were needed. This historic agreement is known as Washington’s “Great Compromise.”

Since then, Washington has been rated as one of the top workers’ comp systems in the nation and is the only state in which workers pay a share of the premium. We are in the lowest one-third of states for employer costs, while being in the top 10 in benefits.

Risk and Insurance Magazine, a bible for risk managers, rated Washington as one of only four states with an “AA” rating, for both employers and employees, in its most recent ranking (2010).

In 2011, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed the most sweeping reforms of the 100-year history of the workers’ comp system. These changes became law less than 18 months ago and stabilized the fund with a projected savings of more than $2 billion. Employers have not seen premiums increase for two straight years.

Virtually all the savings have come on the backs of injured workers like me. That’s why I am outraged that Senate Republicans have launched a new line of unprecedented attacks on my rights and benefits.

This dangerous package would unsafely expand the use of lump-sum payments to young workers by accepting settlements and giving up the rights to all future claims. It would cut benefits to all workers, especially higher-income workers; it would open a worker’s medical and financial records to public scrutiny and inspection; and it would allow employer blacklisting of injured workers.

It is a huge cost shift to taxpayers and injured workers, and a huge tax break and subsidy to many of the largest corporations in the world.

It is clear that this package ignores workers’ stakes in and commitment to the system and comes too soon. The 2011 reforms are working and haven’t even been fully implemented. While nothing can replace my physical health or my job at Boeing, I am proof that our workers’ compensation system works.

I urge legislators to protect this system, not destroy it. Please, let’s not go this route.

Steve Kearns lives in Puyallup.