The gloves are off in California, where the State Senate''s Democratic leader called the veto of a benefits increase for injured workers by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis "outrageously shameful."
It is the third time since he took office three years ago that Davis has vetoed an increase in workers'' compensation benefits, a move that obviously irked Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, author of S.B. 71.
Although Davis claims he supports a benefits increase, he said he wants "significant improvements" in the workers'' compensation system, including measures to cut medical costs and promote early return to work. Davis'' press secretary, Steve Mayiglio, said the governor "would be happy to work with Senator Burton to craft a bill early in the next session" of the Senate.
Burton warned that Davis'' rejection of the measure could hurt him when he runs for re-election next year. "I believe [the veto is] not a politically wise thing to do and I know it''s not a morally wise thing to do," said Burton.
According to Burton, his bill included some of the cost-cutting measures encouraged by Davis and would have cost employers only a penny an hour per employee. It required the Senate Office of Research to conduct a study to determine the appropriate level of workers'' compensation benefits and that would provide a recommended schedule upon which benefits were to be raised. In addition to increasing benefits for injured workers, Burton''s bill also:
- Created a Workers'' Compensation Fraud Account in the Insurance Fund to be used to more aggressively investigate fraud claims. The account would have included the fines collected from people convicted of workers'' compensation fraud and from an annual assessment determined by the Fraud Assessment Commission, which also would have been created by the legislation.
- Ordered the Director of Industrial Relations to establish new positions for staffing of the workers'' compensation courts, including eight workers'' compensation administrative law judges, eight hearing reporters, and eight senior typists.
- Established the Workers'' Occupational Safety and Health Education Fund and an employer and worker advisory board to guide the development of curricula, teaching methods, and specific course material about occupational safety and health. The program would have included the development and provision of a needed core curriculum addressing competencies for effective participation in workplace injury and illness prevention programs and on joint labor-management health and safety committees. The program also would have included programs for industries on the high hazard list; hazards that result in significant worker injuries, illnesses or compensation costs; industries or trades where workers are experiencing numerous or significant injuries or illnesses; and occupational groups with special needs, such as those who do not speak English as their first language, workers with limited literacy and young workers.
California is 49th out of 50 states in terms of workers'' compensation benefits, complained Burton, adding, "This increase would have only raised us to 46th in the nation."
Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, said California labor leaders were considering trying to put an initiative on the ballot next year to raise California''s workers'' compensation benefits to the national average, calling it "a reasonable alternative" to trying to get Davis to agree to a similar measure.
Not surprisingly, the Alliance of American Insurers, which represents 326 property and casualty insurance companies, supported the veto.
by Sandy Smith