Changes needed again in state workers’ comp system

Gloria Navarro traveled several hours and, with great difficulty, walked with a cane up the Capitol steps to join others and me at a news conference calling on the legislature to support SB 1717 (Perata).  SB 1717 contains modest permanent disability compensation increases for injured workers phased in over a three-year period.  
In 2004, Governor Schwarzenegger sponsored SB 899 in response to employer complaints about high workers compensation premiums.  Under SB 899, employer premiums have come down, as they should have, and insurance companies are reaping the highest profits they have ever recorded.  Unfortunately, however, injured workers like Gloria Navarro have suffered terribly in a system that had already been found to provide inadequate benefits.  Governor Schwarzenegger promised that his workers compensation reform would not harm injured workers.  Now, four years after the enactment of SB 899, study after study, including this governor’s own study, has confirmed that injured workers have lost 50-70% of their permanent disability compensation.  In the last two years, the Governor has vetoed two bills similar to SB 1717, stating that it was important to wait for more data before making legislative changes.  Last year, the governor acknowledged that change was needed, and stated that he would accomplish change administratively.  To date, months and years have gone by, and nothing has been done.
Gloria Navarro’s life was shattered when she tripped and fell on a loose patio deck board on the job as a home health aide, caring for a homebound diabetic.  Gloria landed face first on a glass table and bounced to the ground. She injured her head, face, tooth, hips and ankle. She has suffered through two surgeries, now must walk with a cane, and lives in pain.  She will never be able to do her home health care job again. Gloria is consumed with worry about how she will survive.  Under Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration, Gloria’s permanent disability compensation would be reduced from about $70,000 to under $3,000.  
Gloria Navarro is just one example of how injured workers are treated under this Governor’s administration, and her situation is in stark contrast to the deep clover in which the insurance industry finds itself.  The Workers Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB), an insurance company research group, “Summary of December 31, 2007 Insurer Experience” (released March 31, 2008 ) reveals that between 2004 and 2007 injured workers received $26 billion in benefits while insurance carriers earned $28.6 billion in profits.  An additional $19.1 billion went to insurance companies to cover expenses.  All this while Gloria, and so many others, must wonder how she will survive following her work-related injury.
The permanent disability compensation awarded in the workers compensation system is the only compensation most injured workers receive for losing the ability to do many things that we all take for granted each day, and for facing a lifetime of pain and suffering.  Had these Californians been injured outside of the workplace they would have received much greater compensation for the life-long effect of their injuries.  But, when the California Constitution created a “complete system of workers’ compensation” injured workers lost the ability to sue their employers for greater damages.  In return, the Constitution requires that the “complete system of workers’ compensation includes adequate provisions for the comfort, health and safety and general welfare of any and all workers and those dependent upon them for support to the extent of relieving from the consequences of any injury or death incurred or sustained by workers in the course of their employment. . .”    
During this governor’s tenure, California has fallen to the bottom of the nation in the compensation it provides to its men and women who are injured on the job.  In the face of this administration’s own studies showing draconian and unintended cuts in benefits to those our Constitution seeks to protect, the governor’s silence and inaction on this issue echoes through the families of working Californians injured on the job.  
As president of the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, and in my private practice as a workers compensation attorney, I see the terrible toll the governor’s policies have taken on working men and women in California every day.  It is long past time to correct this injustice and SB 1717 is a strong step in the right direction.

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