Republican members of a joint legislative committee reversed course and accepted a compromise bill that would make moderate reforms to the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Republicans on the Labor and Housing Committee favored no changes to the current system but were outnumbered by Democratic members who threatened to pass even more sweeping reforms unless the Republicans agreed to a compromise.

The resulting omnibus bill was forwarded to the full Legislature late Thursday with a unanimous recommendation from the 13-member committee. It would:

—increase the maximum weekly benefit for workers’ compensation from 100 percent to 125 percent of the state’s average weekly wage;

—allow annual cost-of-living adjustments of up to 5 percent for injured workers on full disability after a five-year waiting period;

—double the allowable period to file a workers’ compensation claim from 30 days to 60 days following an on-the-job injury.

One thing the compromise bill would not do is increase the 500-week maximum term for families of workers killed on the job to receive death benefits. Labor advocates had sought the removal of that restriction. However, the bill would change state law to allow dependent parents of workers killed on the job to receive death benefits.

Backers of a sweeping overhaul of the workers’ compensation system submitted more than two dozen bills for consideration in the Legislature this session, arguing that past reforms designed to lower insurance costs have created an unfair system for injured workers in the state.

Opponents said the current system has provided much-needed stability to employers following a crisis period in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

In late May, the Labor and Housing Committee forwarded an earlier, more liberal version of the bill but with a split opinion down party lines, with the committee’s eight Democrats recommending passage and its five Republicans recommending rejection.

At the time, advocates for the more moderate compromise bill, worked out between Democratic lawmakers and representatives of labor interests and the insurance industry, said it would behoove Republican committee members to accept the compromise. Democrats, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s mansion, had said they would not endorse the compromise bill without bipartisan support.

On Thursday, Republican members of the committee finally conceded, and the earlier version of the bill was rescinded in favor of the compromise version.

The current push for workers’ compensation reform by pro-labor groups comes more than 25 years after Maine imposed various restrictions on compensation to alleviate a situation in which the state’s workers’ comp insurance had become the most expensive in the nation and insurers were leaving the state in droves. Since the reforms of 1992, workers’ compensation costs in Maine have fallen toward the middle of the pack – to No. 12 by one measure and No. 19 by another.

John Rohde, executive director of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board, has said the proposed reform bill would only increase the cost of workers’ comp insurance in Maine by a small percentage, but opponents have challenged that opinion.

Since the 1992 reforms, the cost of workers’ comp insurance has decreased by 60 percent in Maine, and the serious on-the-job injuries have decreased by about 50 percent.

Representatives of the labor and insurance groups that have been central to the workers’ comp reform debate declined to comment on this story.


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