Washington Legislature Passes $1.1 Billion in Labor Cuts Without Killing Unions

Note to other states: It is possible to achieve significant savings in public labor costs without throwing unions under the bus.

On Monday, the Washington State Legislature did exactly that by passing major revisions to the state's century-old worker's-compensation and pension system.

The new laws are expected to save the state some $1.1 billion over four years.

The main change that the legislation brings has to do with how workers file for and receive disability payments. Under the old system, one in 20 workers who went on long-term disability soon moved to lifetime pensions, costing the state millions.

Under the new system, injured workers will have the option of coming back to work on a limited basis; also, certain older workers with disabilities will be offered structured "settlement" payments that allow the state to pay off their claims permanently in a way similar to as private-sector employers.

Workers will still have plenty of ways to contest any settlement they are offered, and, depending on the circumstances, can still qualify for a full pension if they are unable to return to work. And even if they do settle, employees will still receive their same health-care benefits.

The disability and pension application process is also being streamlined so that workers aren't left waiting for months and even years to hear back about a pension decision when they could be using that time to find a new job.

Unions, of course, are far from thrilled about the legislation. Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council released a statement saying, among other things:

"Workers who are injured on the job should not have to 'settle' for something less than the 'sure and certain relief.'"

But unions aren't going to be happy with any cuts to pay or benefits--that's why they're unions.

Regardless, these changes are doable. They don't take away workers' rights to negotiate, and they won't cripple working people's ability to make a decent living.

There's no question that the public labor dynamic in Washington and elsewhere needs to change. But there's a difference between taking a scalpel to a labor budget and smashing it with a wrecking ball.

We've seen the outcomes of both tools. And Washington's more refined approach is one reason that Olympia isn't the new Madison.

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