A D.C. City Council committee, ignoring shouted catcalls from a roomful of angry union members, voted yesterday to rewrite the city's controversial and costly workers' compensation law.
The action by the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee set the stage for a vigorous pro-and-con lobbying effort when the measure goes before the full council in January.
A union leader, Ron Richardson, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct when he stood in the audience and began reading a list of objections to the bill as the committee continued its deliberations.
Richardson, 40 executive secretary of Local 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, was dragged from the room by two special policemen as spectators shouted protests and, at one point, appeared close to violence.
Moments later Richardson returned and sat down, and again was escorted out, led away in handcuffs. After being booked by police, he was released on his own recognizance pending an appearance in Superior Court.
Committee Chairman Willie J. Hardy (D-Ward 7) scheduled the compensation bill for action yesterday after withdrawing it from consideration during a flurry of controversy last June.
That followed a disclosure in The Washington Post that much of the language in the committee's draft report on the bill was identical to a lobbying document prepared by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Workers' compensation pays benefits to employes to make up for wages they lose when injured on the job. Last year, $100 million was paid in the District of Columbia to about 9,000 workers.
Employers have complained that what they consider excessive benefits paid on sometimes marginal injuries here have ballooned premium costs by 500 percent since 1972, driving some firms out of the city and into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, where the rates are far cheaper.
Union spokesmen are protesting the proposed bill on the grounds that it would reduce their members' rights and scale down future increases in cash benefits.
In a related development, the D.C. Insurance Department notified the committee yesterday that premiums on workers' compensation rates will rise 22.7 percent on Saturday.
The department's acting superintendent, James R. Montgomery III, said he reduced the increase from the 29.4 percent rise proposed by the insurance industry. That reduction will save city employers an estimated $7.1 million in premiums during the next 12 months, he said.
There is no available figure showing what a typical increase would be to an employer. Premiums are based upon the degree of hazard estimated in any given type of job. For example, an employer now must pay $15.46 for every $100 of payroll costs for a carpenter but only 39 cents for an office clerical employe.
Before approving the new legislation yesterday, the committee adopted several changes -- described by Hardy as technincal -- from the version considered last June. No committee report was proposed or adopted.
Approval was by a voice vote, with Hardy joined by Council Chairman Arrington Dixon (D), John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) and William R. Spaulding (d-Ward 5), Jerry A. Moore (R-At Large) abstained from voting after asking for a delay so he could study the bill's details.
Dixon, who is a ex-officio member of all council committees but rarely attends their regular meetings, argued against a delay. The vote represented "a tough decision we don't want to make," Dixon declared.