Former pro athletes battle against bill limiting workers' comp

04/16/2013 12:00 AM

05/02/2013 1:13 PM

Legislation that seeks to limit the ability of professional athletes in other states to file workers' compensation claims in California is meeting push-back from the National Football League Players Association.

"This bill is about trying to make a small group of people richer, at the expense of people who got hurt at work," DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said of Assembly Bill 1309 at a news conference on the Capitol steps Monday.

He was surrounded by former players including Dana Stubblefield of the 49ers, Ickey Woods and Reggie Williams of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Lorenzo Neal of the San Diego Chargers.

The bill by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, pits players and other labor unions against team owners and league management. It is being pushed by the five pro sports leagues – football, basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer – and is the subject of heavy lobbying in the Capitol.

The leagues argue that injured players from other states are ripping off California's workers' compensation system, thereby increasing the cost of running a team – and the cost of buying workers' compensation insurance for all employers in the state. They say some players are getting workers' comp payments from California even though they played few games in the state.

"Nobody wants to limit the ability of players who are legitimately injured to file" for workers' compensation, said Jason Kinney, a California Strategies consultant who works for the NFL.

"But there needs to be clear standards. Because what's going on here is that every player in the country is filing claims in California," he said.

Players argue the system allows them to get the money they're due for cumulative trauma from bruising careers. Players pay income taxes in California for every game they play here, they argue, so are entitled to file for workers' compensation even if their team was based in another state.

"Once you pay taxes in California, you're on equal footing, just like everybody else here," said Mel Owens, a former Los Angeles Rams linebacker who is now a workers' comp attorney.

Workers' compensation payments do not come from state taxpayers, but from funds employers pay into a statewide insurance system. Players at the news conference argued that they're the ones who pay into the system by accepting the workers' comp benefit as part of their salary package. Smith said NFL players have paid $400 million into the system over the past 10 years. League representatives said that money had been paid by them.

Perea's bill would allow pro athletes to file for workers' compensation in California due to "cumulative trauma" only if the team they retire from is based here.

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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