By Eric Tegethoff
Washington News Service
SEATTLE – The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating a new method for employers to opt out of state-regulated workers’ compensation plans. Seattle-based retailer Nordstrom is one of the proponents of the opt-out system in which employers provide their own compensation to workers hurt on the job.
Larry Shannon, government affairs director at the Washington State Association for Justice, said these new plans have little or no legal oversight and added that, in the end, businesses could pass costs on to taxpayers.
“What happens to these families when they are crushed financially because of a workplace injury? Well, ultimately, the only place that they can turn are to the taxpayers,” he said.
Shannon said the string of employers opting out of workers’ compensation in several states is a dangerous trend that amounts to a massive subsidy for corporations. Under opt-out plans, compensation for workplace injuries is doled out at the discretion of employers. The U.S. Labor Department has not said when its investigation will conclude.
In a study released this month, the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions reported harsh criticism of the alternative compensation plan. The study focused on Oklahoma, where employers can choose opt-out plans over the state-regulated system. In theory, the report said, employers could voluntarily offer more generous benefits than current state plans. However, Shannon said he finds that prospect unlikely in most cases.
“The problem, of course, is that goes back to that inherent conflict of interest,” he said. “Every dollar they save in an opt-out plan, every dollar not paid in benefits, every benefit not offered or not paid is a dollar back in their pocket.”
Opt-out laws have not yet come to the state of Washington. Here, all workplace injuries must be covered and are subject to oversight under Washington law and the Department of Labor and Industries.
The IAIABC report is online at iaiabc.org.