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Assembly advances bill reducing union influence over worker’s comp policy (UPDATE)

The state Assembly advanced a bill Tuesday that would cut by more than half the number of union representatives on a panel with great influence over the state’s workers’ comp policies.

Assembly Bill 308, which was up before Assembly lawmakers on Tuesday, would tie the number of representatives that labor groups could have on Wisconsin’s Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council to the proportion of union members in the general workforce. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that about 8.3 percent of Wisconsin workers — about 230,000 people — were represented by unions in 2017. That percentage was actually up from the 8.1 percent of workers who were union members in 2016.

But under the general rules laid out by AB 308, that 8.3 percent figure still would not be enough for unions to retain any of the five seats now set aside for them on the state’s Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council. AB 308 wouldn’t quite let things go quite that far, though; a provision in the bill would require that, no matter how low union membership dips in the state, at least two of the council’s seats be reserved for labor representatives.

The other three union representatives on the council would be replaced by people who still represent employees’ interests but are not affiliated with labor organizations. The chief sponsor of the bill — state Rep. John Spiros, a Republican from Marshfield — has said he would leave it to the state’s Department of Workforce Development to decide how those new council members should be picked.

Besides the employee representatives, the council would still consist of five employer representatives, three nonvoting representatives of the insurance industry and an employee of the state’s Department of Workforce Development.

The Wisconsin chapter of the AFL-CIO, which has long had a representative on the worker’s comp advisory council, excoriated the bill in a press release.

“Dismantling the decades long balance on the Workers Compensation Advisory Council by purging members of organized labor will undermine the Council’s credibility and will certainly deteriorate the system for injured workers in Wisconsin,” according to the statement.

The authors of the bill have said their real goal is efficiency. Spiros has said his proposal is generally modeled after changes that South Dakota has adopted to its own workers’ comp advisory panel and that have since been found to help expedite revisions to the state’s comp policies.

Spiros has also blamed labor representatives on Wisconsin’s advisory council for the Legislature’s failure a few years ago to adopt changes to the state’s workers’ comp policies.

Every other year, the council’s recommendations are usually rolled up into an “agreed-upon bill” and sent to the state Legislature to be adopted with few revisions. But in 2013 and 2014, the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council’s efforts to produce an agreed-upon bill attracted heavy opposition from health-care providers after council members proposed using a so-called fee schedule to hold down the cost of treating injured workers.

But the fee schedule was far from the only part of the proposed legislation to meet resistance. Another provision would have required employers to continue offering health insurance to employees who are on medical leave because of a workplace injury and are receiving workers’ comp benefits.

Various business groups opposed that proposal, saying it would fall particularly heavily on small companies.

Spiros has said he has talked to South Dakota officials about the similar overhaul made to their workers’ comp advisory council. Spiros said everything he has heard has made him think those sorts of changes in Wisconsin would lead to less friction and quicker agreements over workers’ comp policies.

With the Assembly’s approval of AB 308 on Tuesday, the proposal still needs to be approved by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Scott Walker to become law.

About Dan Shaw, [email protected]

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 414-225-1807.

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