February 4, 1995
INJURED WORKERS' CLAIMS UNSETTLED
By Steve Suo of the Oregonian Staff
Roger Crockett of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.
Summary: A bill in the state Legislature would overturn several court rulings and make it harder for employees to win benefits
The fate of thousands of injured Oregon workers is still up in the air despite a court decision Thursday allowing them to sue their employers.
A bill making its way through the state Legislature would overturn the Oregon Supreme Court's ruling and reverse several others, making it harder for employees who file workers' compensation claims to win benefits.
Until lawmakers reach a decision, people who have been denied workers' compensation must wait to learn whether they'll have a second chance -- the option of suing their employer. About 19,000 workers were denied benefits in 1993, the last year records were available.
Supporters say Senate Bill 369 is the only way to save companies from higher insurance rates and a flood of frivolous lawsuits. That, in turn, is needed to keep Oregon an attractive place to do business and locate jobs, they say.
But labor groups contend the legislation goes much further.
"That bill has got things that we haven't seen for 50 years in this state," said AFL-CIO director Irv Fletcher. ". . . This is a power play by business, because they've got sympathy in both houses."
The bill does increase benefits for workers partially disabled by an on-the-job injury by 10 percent to 40 percent, depending on how disabled they are. But an unknown number of people would be denied benefits, under provisions that would:
Backers say Thursday's court decision is a good example of why the bill is needed.
The case involved Edwin Errand, an employee at Cascade Steel Rolling Mills in McMinnville.
Errand suffered from a chronic sinus infection problem when he took the job. When symptoms of the ailment developed at work because he inhaled particulates, he sought treatment and filed a workers' compensation claim.
State officials denied the claim, ruling Errand's work wasn't the main cause of his sinus problems. He sued the company seeking compensation.
Even though state workers' compensation law said such workers must live with the state's ruling without suing, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that lawsuits were allowed under certain circumstances.
That allows 18,000 to 19,000 workers a year to sue their employers, said Mari Miller, dispute resolution manager for the state Worker's Compensation Division.
Backers of SB369 say that's wrong. The workers' compensation system is designed to be no-fault insurance; employers agree to pay workers if the state rules they were hurt on the job, and workers agree to accept the state's decision if they are denied benefits.
"Now if you've got a pre-existing condition and file a claim and the employer wins, the reward for winning is the possibility they get to defend a lawsuit," said Ronald W. Atwood, an attorney who argued the case for Cascade Steel.
The bill's supporters say courts, in interpreting the state's workers' compensation law, have undermined the original intent: to reduce costs to employers and increase benefits to workers.
"This is not a bill that's going to be a scoreboard that says management on one side and labor on the other side, where each time management gets two points, labor loses two points," said Rep. John Watt, the Medford Republican who chairs the House Labor Committee.
Still, even Rep. Kevin Mannix, a co-sponsor of the bill, acknowledges it breaks new ground.
For instance, Mannix said, the bill throws out a 1950s ruling that said courts always should err on the side of working people -- not employers -- in interpreting workers' compensation laws. He said that ruling was written when only workers in hazardous jobs were covered, and workers' compensation law was much more limited in its coverage.
The bill was expected to go to the Senate floor for a vote next week.
Fletcher, of the AFL-CIO, said Friday that he expected it to pass. He said the labor group would ask Gov. John Kitzhaber to veto it.
But the bill's supporters have a strong bargaining chip to keep that from happening.
Unless the Legislature sets new benefit rates for workers this year, the average award of $7,000 would revert to 1990 levels. The amount awarded would fall by 25 percent to 60 percent, depending on how disabled a worker is.