Marching beneath the political banner of "home rule," the city's business community today begins a legislative campaign to freeze benefits to injured and disabled workers compensation insurance bill over the past six years.
Legislative vehicle for the business community appears to be a proposal by council member Willie Hardy to remove the District from coverage under the federal Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' compensation Act in favor of a new compensation program to be administered by the District government.
The Hardy proposal has the basic support of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, which argues the bill is "consistent with the Home Rule act" for the city. Board officials involved in the legislative campaign said they would like to see the Districths beneift levels frozen until they are matched by Maryland and Virginia.
Hardy insists her proposal would not take anything away from workers in the District. "We're not talking about reducing our payments, but we're not talking about paying any more," she said. Hardy would freeze benefits at $394.
Hardy insists her proposal is needed because of the sudden rise in District compensation costs is "running a lot of our business out of the city."
The District's worker compensation problems begam in 1972 when the federal government amended the longshoremen's act in line with basic recommendations by the National Commission on Workers Compensation.
Unlike states that administer their own worker compensation laws and set their own payment standards, the District, which had no self-government at the time, was placed under the longshoremen's act in 1928.
Until 1972, however, coverage under the federal law did not appear to be a major problem for the District business community. While there was oc casional grumbling about the way the U.S. Labor Department administered the city program, the benefit structure was basically in line with the better state programs.
Maximum benefits for injured and disabled worders covered by the District law at the start covered by the District law at the start of the decade were $70 a week. In the six years since the federal government adopted the recommendations of the national commission, however, the maximum benefit has rised to $367 a week. And the benefits are still rising. No one, however, can collect more than two-thired of normal pay.
With the exception of Alaska, where maximum benefits are $551 a week, District benefits are by far the hightse in the nation. The next closet state is Illinois, with a weekly maximum benefit of $231. New York state, once a model for the nation, has a maximum weekly benefit of $95.
For District employers, however, the most important comparison is with Virginia and Maryland. The maximum weekly benefits are $188 in Maryland and $162 in Virginia.
Although the employer does not pay the benefits directly to injured workers, it's insurance premiums are based on premium levels. And here the comparison with Maryland and Virginia is even more dramatic.
In the District, for example, a bakery pays $8.25 for $100 of payroll for workers compensation insurance. The same bakery would pay $2.34 operating in Virginia and $2.69 in Maryland.
One of the biggest cost items under the longshoremen's program is that benefits are now indexed to keep pace with increases in the cost of living. District benefits therefore increase each year by the amount of increase in the nation's average weekly wage.
Another problem in the District appears to be simple administrative inefficiency. Key Labor Department officials concede that administrative costs-including legal costs to defend against marginal claims-account for approximately 40 percent of the total cost of the program here.
Although Labor Department officials defend the city coverage under the federal law, they concede Congress may have gone a little too far in the case of the District. "Sometimes," says Assistant Labor Secretary Donald Elisberg, "you have to realize that you've stepped out a little farther than the system can handle."