Business groups advance initiative - Measure repeals workplace ergonomics rules for 2004



Olympia, WA - Washington's building industry took another swipe at state regulators Tuesday, filing the first of an estimated 260,000 petition signatures for Initiative 841.

The high number of signatures all but assures the anti-ergonomics measure will qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot, state elections officials said.

But no other successful campaigns to land initiatives on the ballot are in sight, said David Elliott of the Secretary of State's elections office. The filing deadline is 5 p.m. Thursday.

I-841 repeals the state's as-yet-unenforced ergonomics rules, which are designed to reduce the roughly 50,000 muscular-skeletal injuries suffered statewide each year, according to the Department of Labor and Industries, which drafted the rules.

Businesses from construction to nursing homes will be affected when enforcement of the rules begins next July for the first group of 600 employers.

"We figure to do the campaign right, it's going to take over $1 million," said Ron Gold, a Wenatchee homebuilder and president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, which is the main financial backer of I-841.

The campaign spent $347,000 through May 31, including the cost of paid signature gatherers who were needed to meet this week's deadline for signatures, state campaign-finance records show.

"We couldn't have done it without them," Gold said of the paid help, suggesting his group lacked time to build a grass-roots drive. "I think this is a clear indication that the citizens of this state do not want these rules."

I-841 faces a big fight from organized labor groups, who say the rules are needed to protect workers from costly injuries, said David Groves of the Washington State Labor Council.

"We're definitely going to oppose their initiative," Groves said. "What we envision is going to be an education campaign about what the ergonomics rule would do."

One analysis by L&I shows that the rules would cost businesses $70 million a year but save them $340 million in reduced costs for injured workers. The BIAW contends, by contrast, that ergonomics rules will cost $700 million in the first year while killing off jobs.

"We think that once people really understand the rule and stop relying on exorbitant cost estimates and other misinformation being spread by the BIAW and others, they'll say it makes sense," Groves said. "It's smart for business, it's smart for employees and in the long run will save employers money. That's why large employers such as Boeing and Seattle City Light have voluntarily implemented procedures."

The BIAW's filing of signatures far exceeded the 200,000 needed to qualify the measure for the ballot. But before it's certified, elections officials must compare samples of the signatures against voter registration rolls to ensure that enough are valid.

Elliott, an assistant director in the Secretary of State's elections division, said it could take until early August to validate the signatures. No other initiative backers have responded to state elections officials' inquiries to say whether they are bringing in signatures ahead of the deadline, Elliott said.

That silence suggests that Tim Eyman, who had championed new state spending limits via I-807 this year, won't make the deadline.

Eyman typically calls in advance and has qualified initiatives for the ballot every year since 1999, but he did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

The ergonomics issue has been controversial since L&I adopted the rule with a phased-in approach in 2000. Last year, Gov. Gary Locke ordered a two-year delay until July 2004 for enforcing the rules on the first group of affected employees, and this year he urged his agency to work with businesses to help them comply.

The BIAW says no rule is needed, and it has sued to overturn it. Even if the builders win in court, BIAW wants the initiative to pass because it would limit L&I's ability to write a replacement rule, BIAW attorney Tim Ford said.

Locke remains supportive of the ergonomics rules despite the attacks, said Roger Nyhus, Locke's press secretary.

The BIAW is no stranger to fights at the Capitol.

It sponsored Referendum 53 a year ago, asking voters to reject a change in the state's unemployment insurance system, which it claimed was a big give-away to Boeing. It then worked with Boeing and small-business groups this year to win a major reform of the unemployment system, reducing the weekly benefits that laid-off workers will be paid in the future.

This time around, BIAW is calling its political committee "Workers Against Job-Killing Rules," although Public Disclosure Commission filings show that virtually all of the I-841 support comes from the BIAW and construction-related businesses.

The National Federation of Independent Business, which worked with the BIAW on unemployment insurance reform, supports the initiative, said state director Carolyn Logue.


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