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Workers' rights bills go to Nixon's desk; Democrats urge veto

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - Gov. Jay Nixon may provide a gloomy reception to legislation that, among other things, changes how claims of occupational disease are treated.

It's a measure that some House Democrats are urging the governor to strike down.

According to a bill summary, Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey’s legislation would take occupational disease claims out of civil court and into the workers' compensation system.

The legislation would also release employees "from all liability" for workplace injuries or deaths where compensation is recoverable under workers' compensation. The bill makes an exception if an "employee engages in an affirmative negligent act that purposefully and dangerously caused or increased the risk of injury." (That means if a co-worker did something on purpose that contributes to an injury, he or she could still face a lawsuit.)

Dempsey’s bill passed the House Wednesday by an 87-68 margin – far short of what’s needed to overcome Nixon’s veto. That could be crucial, since Nixon spokesman Sam Murphey said in an e-mail to the Beacon that the Democratic governor had misgivings about the bill.

“We’ll be giving each of the provisions of this legislation a thorough review, but the governor communicated during the legislative process that he had concerns about weakening protections for workers who suffer serious and deadly illnesses as a result of their employment,” Murphey said. “We will carefully review this bill in its entirety.”

Supporters of the measure, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, pushed for the changes after courts ruled that the 2005 revisions to workers' compensation allowed for claims involving "co-employee liability" and occupational diseases to be heard in civil courts.

Chamber President and CEO Dan Mehan said that such a reality provided a hardship for businesses already "struggling under a weak economy."

Businesses "do not need the uncertainty and enormous legal defense costs and potential liability that these errors in our workers’ compensation statute have caused,” Mehan said in a statement.

State Rep. Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who handled Dempsey's bill in the Missouri House, said that the measure restores “balance” to the workers' compensation system. 

“Workers' comp has always been a balance between the interest of employers and employees," said Richardson. "And that balance is struck by having workplace injuries covered through workers’ comp.”

But state Rep. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said the legislation curtails the ability of people who contract catastrophic diseases on the job from obtaining maximum restitution.

“We are giving companies that have hurt people’s lives a way out of having to pay restitution for the lives they destroyed,” said Hummel.

Hummel provided an example of people who sued after contracting mesothelioma from asbestos, which was also mentioned in a statement from AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Herb Johnson.

“When workers suffer fatal diseases from the job, this bill would prevent any real compensation for the worker or family,” Johnson said. “Life-threatening cases from toxic exposure will be denied access to civil court and reasonable compensation, inevitably further pushing hardships onto injured workers.”

Hummel said “that he was hopeful that the governor would veto the bill,” adding that there was “certainly enough to sustain a veto override attempt.” Both Richardson and Dempsey urged Nixon to sign the bill.

"Ending lawsuit abuses and relieving the need for additional insurance to cover honest accidents at work are important to making sure Missouri businesses can grow and hire more employees," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles, in a statement. "I hope the governor will join us in supporting these important reforms to Missouri’s workers’ compensation system.”

Another curb on workers' rights

Meanwhile, the Missouri Senate sent legislation to the governor changing the state's workplace discrimination law. State Rep. Kevin Elmer’s legislation would make it more difficult for employees to sue employers for discrimination, among other things.

Proponents, such as the state's Chamber of Commerce, have argued that court rulings over the past 10 years have skewed Missouri's law more toward workers. Mehan said in a statement that plaintiff attorneys are “targeting state courts to bring employment law cases because standards are lower and settlements and awards are potentially higher.”

But the measure ran into opposition from some Democratic senators, such as state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. Chappelle-Nadal told the Beacon in late January that the bill would weaken the state’s Human Rights Act and “create more barriers that would benefit corporations.”

While opponents stood down from blocking the bill, it may be a moot point. Nixon vetoed a similar bill passed last year, even going so far as to hold a ceremony at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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