LOS ANGELES — About a decade ago, apparel manufacturers marched in Sacramento to protest rising workers’ compensation costs, and this year may call for a repeat.
Or at least a surge in local rabble-rousing at state congressional offices to reform the system, according to speakers from the political action network, the Independent Business Coalition, who spoke to a sparsely attended meeting last Wednesday of the Garment Contractors Association of Southern California. Already beset by an unfriendly economic climate and stringent state regulations, apparel firms are having trouble weathering skyrocketing premiums — with increases ranging from 20 percent to 250 percent — for workers’ compensation.
“A lot of people aren’t here because they’re demoralized, but we have to remember that nothing is more terrifying to these politicians than grassroots attacks on them,” said Irwin Trester, a labor law attorney and adviser of the coalition. He demonstrated his activist bent by putting on a white shirt sporting the words “workers compensation fraud” crossed out by a red circle over his dress shirt and tie.
His message, delivered in tandem with coalition president Thomas Hagerman, to the dozen attendees was to push advocacy in the form of writing letters to congressmen, spreading the word to colleagues and creating a deafening noise that Sacramento can’t possibly ignore.
Much of their frustration lies in the inefficacy of some of the 60 workers’ compensation-related proposals up for consideration. For instance, they believe SB 228, a bill proposed by state Sen. Richard Alarcon seeking to contain medical costs in order to lower insurance premiums, doesn’t go far enough.
“He’s looking to save 10 to 15 percent of costs and we need that number to be 50 percent,” said Hagerman.
The group has already sponsored AB 431, authored by assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, which aims to limit borderline and marginal claims of injury. The bill redirects “liberal construction” back to benefits, the original intent of workers’ compensation laws, and away from eligibility for benefits, as has become the practice over time. Essentially tabled in the Assembly’s Insurance Committee about one month ago, the proposal could still provide useful language for reform initiatives put forth by Gov. Gray Davis or California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, Hagerman said.
One takeaway from the gathering was that the apparel industry can’t do it alone.
“Even if we manage to reach these officials, it’s not enough,” said Joe Rodriguez, executive director of the Garment Contractors Association. “We need help from other industries and need to reach out as a cohesive business entity.”