The U.S. Department of Labor's legal office contended yesterday that the D.C. City Council lacks the authority to transfer the District of Columbia workers' compensation program from federal to local control.
Carin Ann Clauss, solicitor of the Labor Department, said in an opinion delivered to the District Building that Congress must act before the program can be shifted. Congress first authorized a federally administered compensation program for the District in 1928.
The two-page opinion is not binding on the District, but from a practical view it could cast a cloud over pending council deliberations on legislation to revamp the program. D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers, the city's top legal officer, and James M. Christian, chief lawyer of the council, said they wanted to explore its findings before commenting.
Council deliberations, previously scheduled for a meeting today, have been put off for at least two weeks because the chief sponsor of the measure, Willie J. Hardy (D-Ward 7), became ill after returning last week from a trip to africa. The office of Council Chairman Arrington L. Dixon (D) said an aide to Hardy's Housing Economic Development Committee asked that the measure be removed from the agenda.
The bill, sponsored by Hardy, was written in concert with the Greater Washington Board of Trade, an employer group whose members have contended that excessive cash awards to insured workers under the compensation program have pushed insurance premiums to prohibitive levels.
In addition to cutting benefits to new claimants, the measure would transfer future administration of the program from the U.S. Department of Labor to the D.C. government.
The Greater Washington Central Labor Council, an AFL-CIO affiliate, is spearheading opposition to the proposed transfer. While it flatly opposes Hardy's bill, the labor group has said another measure, sponsored by Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), chairman of the Council's Public Services and Consumer Affair Committee, would be more acceptable.
Clauss' opinion from the Labor Department, dated Friday, was delivered to Corporation Counsel Rogers' office yesterday. Copies were distributed later at a special meeting of Rolark's committee.
The Clauss opinion was requested by Donald E. Elisburg, assistant secretary of labor for employment standards, whose jurisdiction includes administration of the D.C. compensation program. He asked whether the city's 1975 Home Rule Charter gives the council power to enact a municipal compensation program as long as the federal law authorizing the existing program remains on the books.
"In our opinion," Clauss responded, "the short answer to your basic question is no. Although workers' compensation may be a suitable subject for local law, any proposal to enact such legislation for the District . . . could not be effective until Congress repeals the present . . . act."
As legal precedent, Clauss cited a 1976 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that, despite home rule, affirmed the authority of the U.S. attorney general to control the city's prison furlough program.
Yesterday's meeting of Rolark's committee dealt chiefly but inconclusively with the cost of the compensation program.