I-1082 – Boon To BIAW, Bad For Workers


Initiative 1082, if read carefully, reveals itself as a financial cash cow for insurance companies and the Building Industry Association of Washington — its prime sponsor — and sour milk for the state’s workforce.

The initiative would privatize the state’s worker compensation system by allowing insurance companies to compete with the state to provide coverage. The BIAW and similar groups could become partners with insurance companies in covering workers.

Workers comp, like Social Security, is a contract: The public has said to workers — those who put bodies and limbs at risk — that if injured you get compensated, and you don’t have to sue.

Opponents urge a reading of its fine print: The State Insurance Commissioner would be shorn of oversight, and what insurance companies would charge. In the words of I-1082, “Such rates shall not require commissioner preapproval prior to use.”

Insurers would not be required to give notice, to physicians or legal counsel or anybody, in a case where an insurance claim is denied: The insurer would have the power of indefinite delay and judging a worker’s injury and benefit claim, with no enforcement mechanism to protect the worker.

But you don’t need fine print to understand goals of the initiative’s sponsors. In a recent issue of the BIAW’s newsletter, executive vice president Tom McCabe wrote:

“I personally yearn for the day when the mammoth state Department of Labor and Industries is closed down, windows shuttered, with weeds growing all over its sprawling campus.”

Washington’s worker compensation system was adopted 99 years ago, at a time when the Evergreen State had a logging-mining-farming economy.

It is a no-fault, non-profit system that safeguards employers from lawsuits over job-related injuries, while providing medical insurance and partial wage compensation to injured workers.

Workers comp, like Social Security, is a contract: The public has said to workers — those who put bodies and limbs at risk — that if injured you get compensated, and you don’t have to sue.

The system has some flaws. The state does not pay for pain and suffering. Its payment system provides uniform benefits for loss. A thumb is worth X amount, whether the lost digit belonged to a concert pianist or a fast food worker.

The workers comp system covers about 171,000 employers and 2.5 million workers — a lucrative market if insurance companies and the BIAW can get a piece of it.

The Dept. of Labor and Industries has reported that paid administrative expenses were 17.5 percent of total benefits paid on claims, for the period of 1999 to 2008. That is far below the national average of 68.2 percent.

Initiative 1082 is a vehicle of the BIAW and insurers. Call the number for Save Our Jobs, its front group, and you get the BIAW. The association dumped in $500,000 to put the measure on the ballot. Liberty Mutual put up another $300,000.

The BIAW is being sued by the Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties. It has spent millions on campaigns, notably bids to beat Gov. Chris Gregoire. But it has fallen on economic hard times.

What better vehicle to recoup than I-1082, which would allow BIAW to “pool” employers, link them up with a big insurer like Liberty Mutual, and be handsomely compensated.

Of course, this would have a human cost. We still have people doing risky work: loggers in the woods, operators of farm equipment, construction workers, and employees of refineries and aluminum smelters.

The vast majority of us know little of what it is to lose one’s ability to work. But we should understand that to put folks’ fate in the hands of insurance companies, unregulated and out to maximize profits, is short-sighted and callous.

The current system doles out benefits, often at a minimal level, but benefits that a person can count on. And most people making smaller claims want to get the matter settled, and get back to work.