A last-minute plan to overhaul California's workers' compensation system making its way through the Legislature has set up an unusual set of alliances: Unions and employers are together pushing for changes, while lawyers who represent injured workers are trying to stop them.
The plan laid out in Senate Bill 863 calls for changing the formula used to calculate benefits for injured workers, raising their payments by an average of 29 percent while eliminating aspects of the process that are frequently subject to lawsuits, such as enhancements for psychiatric problems, sexual dysfunction or loss of sleep.
That would mean less business for attorneys, who filled a Capitol hearing room Tuesday to oppose the bill.
"The devil is in the details and we didn't get this bill until (Friday), and now we learn today that it's been amended again last night," said Brad Chalk, president of the California Applicants' Attorneys Association.
He criticized proponents' claims that under the bill, all injured workers would see a boost in compensation.
"Not everybody gets an increase," Chalk said. "Who doesn't get an increase? The injured worker that can't go back to their job."
An actuary from the Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California testified that the plan would reduce costs by $760 million in 2013.
The savings would be poured into raising benefits for permanently disabled workers. They would see their benefits increase by between 1 percent and 110 percent, depending on the severity of their injury, with an average increase of 29 percent, according to a report from the bill's author, Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.
And employers would probably pay less for workers' compensation insurance, according to the State Compensation Insurance Fund, which says the savings achieved in the bill could cause its rates to drop by 5 percent to 7 percent.
The plan was created after lengthy negotiations between the California Labor Federation, which represents union workers, and a few large businesses, including Safeway and Grimmway Farms, which produces baby carrots.
"It's a wonderful example of cooperation when the two of us can sit together for several months and come to an understanding of how the system can work better for us," said Sean McNally, vice president of Grimmway Farms.
Labor and management are "the two stakeholders in the system who don't profit from the system," McNally said, adding:
"The two that do not profit from it are the two out championing this reform. The folks who seem to be fighting us the hardest are the stakeholders in the system who profit from it."
Angie Wei, a lobbyist for the Labor Federation, said the bill restores money to injured workers who she said were "royally screwed" when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reduced their benefits in 2004.
"For eight years the labor movement has been before this Legislature, before this committee, raging about delays and denials of medical treatment, about injured workers living with benefits that were deeply slashed," Wei said at Tuesday's hearing of the Assembly Insurance Committee. "Finally we have a plan to do something about it."
Workers' compensation lawyers wore stickers opposing the bill and organized a worker protest outside the Capitol. They argue that the proposal would not increase benefits and would instead result in new state bureaucracies to create a medical review board and fewer California jobs because the panels could include out-of-state doctors.