Most of the members of the D.C. City Council's Committee on Housing and Economic Development do not know it, but they have a young business lobbyist to thank for writing the committee's "report" on a major workers' compensation bill.
The committee's report and its accompanying 78-page legislative proposal recommend sweeping changes in the current workers' compensation law - virtually all of them in favor of employers - and major cuts in future such benefits.
One organized labor spokesman, lawyer Joseph H. Koonz, denounced the bill as "a rape of the worker."
The council committee's report was released on May 29 under a cover letter from the panel and its chairman Willie J. Hardy (D-Ward 7). The letter announced that the committee "hereby reports favorable (sic) and recommends passage of the bill by council."
However, a committee vote to affirm that pronouncement was delayed and has been rescheduled for sometime this month.
The document that became the basis of committee's report actually was authored last winter by Bruce Eanet, a lobbyist for the legislative-fiscal bureau of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade.
Under a different title and with a cover page bearing the Board of Trade's stamp, Eanet's report was published in December as a lobbying document intended to state the business community's case for cutting workers' compensation benefits.
In the report, the Board of Trade aserted that the liberal benefits provided under the current law have ". . . led to a gold mine for some undeserving claimants. In some cases benefits are being paid to employees who do not have a legitimate need."
The only paragraph in the Board of Trade report not written into the committee report is one which begins: "The Metropolitan Board of Trade believes that the best solution to the workers' compensation problem in the District of Columbia lies through enactment of a statute designed for . . ."
Board of Trade officials take credit for drafting 60 percent of the provisions included in the pending bill. The estimate appears understated, however. An analysis of the bill shows that virtually all of the bill's provisions follow Board of Trade recommendations.
One battle lost by the Board of Trade was the committee's insistence that household domestic workers be included under the umbrella of workers' compensation protection.
"I'll be honest with you," said Eanet, "I had a piece of the action in drafting this bill." The young lobbyist said that the committee effectively subcontracted all of the business community surveying to the Board of Trade in drafting the bill. No labor groups were surveyed during the drafting period.
When it was first introduced in February, the proposal stunned U.S. Labor Department officials, who now administer the privately funded system for Washington's 340,000 member work force. Those officials see the bill as a regressive step that will make it more difficult for injured workers to obtain lost wages and medical benefits.
Last year, insurance companies and self-insured employers paid out more than $50 million in workers' compensation benefits to more than 9,000 men and women injured while working for Washington employers.
But under the federal law that extended workers' compensation benefits to D.C. workers in 1928, premium costs to employers have jumped 500 percent in seven years. The jump is due primarily to 1972 amendments under which Congress provided for annual adjustments to keep the system apace with inflation.
Eanet said last week that he did not know how his Board of Trade position paper became the committee's official report. But the verbatim reproduction was so true to Eanet's text that even double exclamation points and subtitles were duplicated.
Mrs. Hardy, who introduced the bill and who has guided it thus far through committee discussion, insisted that the Board of Trade had no hand in drafting her legislative package.
In an interview, Hardy said she "really resented" the suggestion that the Board of Trade unduly influenced the legislation which, she said, is aimed at relieving the insurance burden of small and minority businessmen.
"This ain't their [Board of Trade's] bill," she said.
Informed of the source of the committee report, an aide to another council member on the committee said, "We assumed the committee staff wrote the report. All I can do is laugh, this is really embarrassing for her [Hardy]."
In a city where the influence of the business community has traditionally overshadowed that of organized labor, the incident exemplifies the effort by the Board of Trade to keep the upper hand in fledgling home rule government in the District.
"One of the problems of organized labor here is nobody's organized," said Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2).
In his monthly message to his members, Board of Trade President Oliver T. Carr Jr. told businessmen that to be "powerful is another way of saying effective." Carr, who is Washington's biggest developer, added, "We're able to make a difference in this community because, if you will, we have our act together."
The difference the business community has made in the effort to cut back skyrocketing workers' compensation costs is evident in more than its shaping of the committee report.
An example is Vincent H. Cohen, a member of the Hogan and Hartson law firm, who has defended insurance companies in hundred of workers' compensation cases over the years. Cohen minces no words when it comes to workers' rights versus those of employers.
"Unions are big, big business and they're mean, mean people - tough monkeys," he said. From a historical perspective, added Cohen, "it started off that management was screwing the workers. Now the worker is screwing management. If you give them [workers] the protections of 1927, you're crazy. The pendulum needs to swing the other way."
Cohen's specialty, and one of his greatest frustrations, is hearing loss cases. He has defended The Washington Post and its insurance carrier, Liberty Mutual, in dozens of such cases involving hearing loss claims attributed to the operation of newspaper presses.
In most of those cases, the lawyer for Cohen's opposition has been Joseph Koonz, whose firm Ashcraft Gerel & Koonz is the biggest workers' comp firm in Washington.
Time and time again, Cohen has unsuccesfully argued that in order for a worker to substantiate a claim of hearing loss due to on-the-job noise, the worker should remove himself from that noisy environment for at least six months to determine whether the "recuperative processes of the ear" will restore part of the loss.
Cohen acknowledges that he has always lost that battle in court.
But he got a chance to win the war last December when the Board of Trade's Eanet sent him an advance copy of the City Council bill with a request for comments.
In four pages of "extensive commentary" on various provisions of the bill, Cohen reached the hearing loss section and said, "My experience indicates that this section has been utilized by employes in many circumstances to obtain fraudulent compensation awards."
Then, parenthetically, Cohen added in a note to Eanet, "Give me a call and I'll give you a complete outline of the problem."
Consequently, when the final draft of the bill was presented to the committee on May 29, it specified that workers were prohibited from filing hearing loss claims "until the employee has been away from such environment for at least six months."
Cohen, who has battled labor lawyers like Koonz for years over this issue, is obviously pleased with his victory: "Damned right. I wanted it in there," he said of the hearing loss provision. "And, he [Koonz] ain't going to get it out."
When Koonz discovered Cohen's apparent legislative success, he drafted a lengthy, point-by-point response and sent it to council member Hardy.
Koonz argued that the proposal would make it almost impossible financially for a jackhammer operator, tunnel construction worker or pressman "to abandon his job for six months without compensation before he could file his claim."
Asked who would pay a worker's salary during the recommended six-month respite, Cohen replied, "Who knows? That's really to discourage the filing of claims."
For now, the provision remains in the bill. CAPTION: Chart, Circled item from Board of Trade report appears in City Council committee's report on workers' compensation. The Washington Post