Calif. among lowest for workers' comp

SACRAMENTO Walking is a struggle for former nurse Gloria Navarro of Santa Rosa. She fell years ago while caring for a patient, and has had back, hip and leg pain ever since. The grandmother told the Senate Labor Committee on Wednesday her permanent disability checks stopped after she received just under $3,000.

"How is one supposed to live on $2,940, with no ability to earn an income?" asked Navarro.

Governor Schwarzenegger's 2004 sweeping workers' compensation overhaul helped companies because it slashed insurance rates to less than $3 per $100 in payroll. But injured workers say permanent disability benefits plummeted by as much as 70 percent.

Senate President Don Perata's proposal to double payouts passed its first committee hearing on Wednesday.

"They were in the workforce. They were doing what everybody says people should do. They get hurt, and now we're punishing them and throwing them aside as though they don't matter," said Sen. President Don Perata, D-Oakland. "It's morally wrong."

A 2006 workers' comp analysis by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shows California's benefits are among the nation's lowest. For example, in cases of hearing loss or permanent injury to an ear, California pays out an average of $5,300. Arizona pays out $26,000, and Oregon pays out more than $100,000.

Employers think no changes are necessary, because the reforms are working.

"The reforms have resulted in higher return-to-work rates and objective medical evaluations of workers' injuries, and the savings have been re-invested in the worker," said Cynthia Leon from the Calif. Manufacturers & Technology Association.

Navarro is appealing her payout, but a legislative fix may be faster.

"We're suffering because of this. We can't get anywhere," said Navarro.

The governor has twice vetoed previous proposals to double benefits. But since his own report says the payouts are too low, supporters hope he changes his mind this time.


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