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Workers' comp conference committee set to open

March 11, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A measure to tighten eligibility requirements for workers' compensation will be the subject of formal negotiations over different House and Senate versions.

But labor leader and former Democratic state Sen. Ken Jacob said an impasse is the best outcome for Missourians.

"The best-case scenario is that the two sides don't agree, and they can't pass the bill," he said. "People are going to get hurt at work, and the cost is going to be spread to the rest of us. It's just a hidden tax."

Jacob, the executive director for the Missouri and Kansas chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the measure was another example of a state government that business interests had bought through contributions to Republican campaigns.

"When the Democrats were in power, they brought more balance into everything," Jacob said. "They understood the importance of the business community, but they wouldn't give them everything that they wanted. The Republicans are, and are proving that this is a government for business, by business."

The Senate passed the measure early last month and the House pushed through a modified version. Formal negotiations will began Monday.

The conference committee will need to hash out language the House and Senate can agree to from versions with several significant differences.

"I think there's broad agreement on most of the bill," Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, said. "Even the people who are unhappy with this are not outraged with those elements with which they disagree."

Loudon was the architect of a Senate version that includes several concessions to Democrats hatched over informal talks. Much of that agreement is not included in the House version.

Both versions did agree on many provisions that would put the onus on the worker to prove that injuries were work-related and cut payments for "misconduct" that occurs after the injury.

Jacob said the changes would effectively undermine workers' compensation system by spreading the cost of injured workers from the employer to the taxpayers.

"The system is broken, but not in how it affects the employer," he said. "It's in how it affects the worked. If a worker gets hurt and is unable to work, this could prevent him from getting any medical care or compensation for that injury."

Opponents said because the legislation would require specific details for repetitive motion injuries and job-related illnesses, it had the effect of preventing these claims.

"If you have carpal tunnel, you can't say which can of peas it was that you scanned that gave it to you," Rep. Jenee Lowe, D-Jackson County, said.

The conference committee will negotiate on each of the differences, and committee members said they would look to avoid adding new elements to the bill.

"I think we've done enough on this thing, why add anything more?" Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, said.

The Republicans have a two-member majority on the committee, which draws five members from each body.

Given the Republican majority, Lowe said she expected to have a limited role in the discussions. She said her hope was to move bill back toward the Senate's version.

Loudon said the committee should complete bill Tuesday or Wednesday.

The differences between the versions include:

  • Language from the House that would allow employers to require employees use paid leave, personal leave or leave to attend medical treatment during work time.
  • A House provision that would require the state to prove businesses without state mandated insurance were acting "with intent to defraud" in order to file criminal charges.
  • A House measure that would bar workers' compensation payments to employees who refuse drug or alcohol tests or seek workers' compensation from another state.
  • A House provision to expand the number of "judges" who hear workers' compensation cases and establish 12-year term limits for workers compensation judges.