Lobbyist: State regulations hurt economy



TUMWATER, WA-- Repealing the state's ergonomics rules, trimming health care costs and making it tougher for workers to file jobless claims would help businesses pull out of the recession, an industry lobbyist argued Tuesday.
"This is a difficult state to do business in on a good day," said Carolyn Logue, state lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business. "We're probably the most regulated state in the country."

So when the economy is as weak as it is now, with about 100,000 jobs lost since 2000, regulations compound the problems, Logue told about 50 people at a Tumwater Area Chamber of Commerce forum.

A business push

The NFIB lobbies on behalf of smaller businesses. It has some 15,000 members in Washington.

The group is pushing for ergonomics rules to be revoked, Logue said. "No other state has it."

Industry advocates say that implementing the rules will cost the state's businesses about $720 million.

The Department of Labor and Industries put the costs closer to $80 million, Logue said, adding that she couldn't understand the disparity.

Recently, the state Senate approved making the ergonomics rules "voluntary," and NFIB backs this move, Logue said.

Reducing workers' compensation costs would be the carrot for improving workplace safety, she said. Since 1990, companies have reduced "musculoskeletal" injuries by 28 percent without being forced.

"Give them a chance to do the right thing," Logue said.

Differing views

But a labor advocate said a voluntary rule is an oxymoron.

"There is no voluntary rule," said Robby Stern, chief lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council. "Either you have a rule or you don't have a rule."

Businesses will have plenty of time to make their work sites safer, Stern said.

The ergonomics rule would be phased in over five years, beginning with the largest, most dangerous employers, he said.

Stern also rejected the idea of the state's economy being hamstrung by regulations favorable to workers.

"Unfortunately, the business community is using the recession to attack worker health and safety," Stern said.

Real voices

One business owner thinks that ergonomics rules wouldn't be bad for office jobs, but would be onerous to manufacturers and construction companies.

"They can't comply with the rule -- it's too complex," said Mike Lawrence, who co-owns Ambassador Service Group, a regional insurer for the trucking industry.

He agreed that curbing workers' comp costs and time lost to injuries would be a big incentive to upgrade safety. "We don't need any regulations," Lawrence said.

Logue also decried rising health care costs.

The NFIB backs efforts to strip required benefits from medical plans to make them more affordable to small businesses, she said. That way, employers could offer their workers some sort of health care, even if it's a bare-bones plan.

Insurance carriers would no longer have to include "alternative" care -- such as chiropractic treatment -- in medical plans, she said. Instead, the carrier could choose to offer, say, one plan with these services.

By loading medical plans with so many required benefits, the state has raised the price of care, shutting many people out of the system, Logue said.

Lawrence said he can't afford to give his six employees health insurance. "It's so costly," he said. "We have none."

But Stern, of the labor council, said he doesn't think whittling down medical coverage is the answer.

Ultimately, the costs are shifted from insurers, obligated to cover fewer treatments, to the patients who would have a much harder time paying doctors and hospitals, Stern said.

The NFIB also wants to prevent workers who quit their jobs from collecting unemployment benefits, Logue said.

Last year, about $90 million in benefits were paid to Washington workers who quit their jobs, she said. Employers bear these costs.

Jobless benefits are supposed to be for workers laid off through no fault of their own, she said.

The only exception would be if a worker quits because an employer does some horrendous misdeed, Logue said.

But Jeff Johnson, the labor council's employment specialist, said workers now have few avenues for quitting.

Workers who leave because an employer is abusive or steals from them might still be denied benefits if they can't prove the employer acted that way, Johnson said. "We don't have very liberal policies."

And reducing jobless claims doesn't help the economy, Johnson said. About $2 billion in benefits were spread across the state in the last 18 months.

"Which has kept our recession as mild as it is," Johnson said.

On the Web

National Federation of Independent Business: www.nfib.com


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