One committee of the D.C. City Council, in an unusual action, accused another committee yesterday of endorsing a pro-employer cutback of the costly workers' compensation program without giving the proposal adequate study.
At a lively two-hour special meeting, the council's Public Services and Consumer Affairs Committee voted unanimously to urge the full council to shelve -- pending further study -- a proposed version of the compensation reform bill that was approved Dec. 1 by the Housing and Economic Development Committee.
The housing committee version was largely written by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which supports it strongly as a way of ringing the program's costs into check. It is vehemently opposed by organized labor, which views it as a threat to workers' benefits.
Yesterday's action puts on collision course two strong-willed committee chairman who represent adjacent voting wards east of the Anacostia River -- Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who heads the public services committee, and Willie J. Hardy (D-Ward 7), who heads the housing committee.
Advocates of both sides sparred at yesterday's meeting after Rolark produced her own version of the bill more to the liking of labor.
"We find your version better than [current law]," Bruce Eanet, lobbyist for the Board of Trade, told Rolark. "But we feel Mrs. Hardy's measure to be the best solution to the workers' compensation problem . . . and it is fairer to both employers, insurers and employes."
The usually soft-spoken Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) sharply attacked the Board of Trade for repeating its contentions that the cost of workers' compensation and various social programs are driving business out of the city.
"I don't see them moving," Mason said. "I see them building as high as they can build. It's a lot of c---."
The full council membership is scheduled to give preliminary consideration to the compensation bill Jan. 28. If it turns down yesterday's proposal to pigeonhole the Hardy bill at that time, the measure will go on the legislative calendar for action in February.
The proposal for a delay won backhand support from Mayor Marion Barry. A staff member of his legislative liaison office, Grace Rosner, told Rolard the administration "is not opposed to the delay you are proposing." She would not endorse it outright.
Howard Skinner, an aide to City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers, said the mayor's office has set up its own task force to consider possible changes in the compensation program, but has not yet reached any conclusions.
The program pays benefits to employes to make up for wages they lose when injured on the job, and also pays benefits to survivors of those killed at work. It is financed from premiums paid by employers. In 1978, $100 million was paid in the city to about 9,000 workers and survivors.
Business spokesmen, represented by the Board of Trade, have complained that what they consider excessive benefits are paid on sometimes marginal injuries and have ballooned premium costs by 500 percent since 1972.
Rolark insisted yesterday that cuts in the program "should not penalize the workers," and that adoption of the Hardy bill would have that effect.
Legislatively, the proposed bill is in the jurisdiction of Hardy's committee. But when it was introduced nearly a year ago, Council Chairman Arrington Dixon gave Rolark's committee a specific right to comment on it.
The comments adopted yesterday by a vote of the four committee members who were present were barbed.
"A vote on this bill should be delayed by the full council until such time that the council has before it sufficient information to address issues raised by the proposed amendments to the current law," the report said, in a reference to the Hardy proposals.
The report listed six questions about the impact of the changes on both labor and employers, the cost of administration and whether -- and to what degree -- it would reduce benefits for workers.
Rolark said her committee would undertake, through consultants and city agencies, to get the answers.
The committee gave Rolark authority to seek passage of her own version of the reform bill as a potential substitute for Hardy's bill if the council majority refuses to delay action. But Rolark called his "a fallback position" she would prefer not to take.
Pierre J. Wessel, staff director of Hardy's committee, said that committee also is seeking more information to present to the council.
Wessel would not comment on the criticisms leveled by Rolark's committee. Hardy was not available for comment yesterday.
The Hardy bill sparked a controversy in the council last June after large parts of a Board of Trade lobbying document written by Eanet were lifted and incorporated in an early draft of a report by her committee on the bill. The report was never adopted and Hardy withdrew the measure from consideration until Dec. 11, when it was approved by a voice vote of her committee.