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Shipyard Workers Oppose Shift in Workers’ Comp

March 2, 2012

By Ryan Murphy
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Union members are urging Gov. Bob McDonnell to veto legislation that would exclude shipyard and dock workers from Virginia’s workers’ compensation system.

“We will continue to fight this bill, whether he signs it or not,” said Arnold Outlaw, president of the Steelworkers Union Local 8888, which represents hourly workers at Newport News Shipbuilding.

The Senate this week joined the House in passing House Bill 153, which prohibits injured workers from filing claims under the state workers’ comp program if they qualify for coverage under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

Outlaw said the union had fought the issue in the General Assembly for two years. If McDonnell signs the bill into law, he said, it would hurt employees at Virginia’s shipyards and ports.

“It would be a travesty,” Outlaw said. He said the law would “leave a lot of our workers outside of the coverage they should have.”

Christine Miller, the press secretary for Newport News Shipbuilding, disputed that, saying the law would affect fewer than 5 percent of claimants.

She said the vast majority of shipyard employees have workers’ comp coverage under the Longshore Act. The federal program provides more generous coverage than the state workers’ comp system, Miller said.

Under HB 153, workers who are injured on or after July 1 would be excluded from the state workers’ comp system if they can file a claim with the federal program.

Miller said the law would eliminate redundancy and expedite the claims process.

“Currently, employees file two claims for a single injury. We (employers) must then perform administrative processing of two claims, even though more than 95 percent wind up being a Longshore (Act) claim,” Miller said.

“This bill allows us to focus more energy on return-to-work programs, vocational rehabilitation and other programs benefiting injured employees.”

The legislation, which was sponsored by Delegate R. Lee Ware Jr., R-Powhatan, would bring Virginia in line with 11 other states, including Maryland, Florida and Texas, Miller said.

Under the existing system, injured workers cannot “double-dip”: They can’t collect workers’ comp from both the state and federal programs simultaneously. But the state program serves as a backup if the federal system denies a claim or federal payments run out, Outlaw said.

He said HB 153 would remove this safety net for injured workers. Supporters of the bill are trying to prevent workers from getting what they are owed, Outlaw said.

“We’re not out there hurting ourselves on purpose,” he said. “It’s all about denying the workers of Virginia their due rights if they get hurt on the job.”

According to the governor’s office, McDonnell is reviewing the bill and no decision has been made on whether to sign or veto it.

If the votes in the General Assembly are any indication, however, it’s likely the Republican governor will sign the bill into law. The votes split cleanly down party lines, with all Republicans voting for the measure and almost all Democrats voting against it.

The only deviations were a pair of Democrats from Hampton Roads. In the Senate, Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, sided with the Republicans, allowing the bill to pass on a 20-19 vote. In the House, Delegate Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomac, who represents parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, also crossed the aisle in a 70-26 vote.

This CNS article was published by news organization that include: The Daily Press and WDBJ7.