Increase in workers’ compensation appears unlikely this session

Forceful opposition by leading business groups Wednesday appeared to put a labor-backed workers’ compensation bill on the ropes.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman David Wysong, R-Mission Hills, said there were not enough votes on the panel to recommend approval of Senate Bill 258.

The bill would require the Kansas Department of Labor to adjust the caps on workers’ comp benefits to an amount equal to the Midwest cost of living adjustment.

Benefits for total disability, partial disability and total disability over a temporary timeframe haven’t increased in Kansas since 1987. For example, the cap for permanent and total disability is $125,000, and the cap for a permanent and partial disability is $100,000.

Wysong said he wanted more information on the effects of the bill on employer-paid workers’ comp premiums before taking action. He said that while there weren’t enough votes on the committee in support of the bill, it was possible the panel could continue working on the measure later in the session.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, who introduced the bill, said he was hopeful. “I sense a possible compromise,” Hensley said. He said perhaps the increase in the caps could be phased in.

On Wednesday, numerous business groups testified against the bill.

“This is not a time to be adding additional costs,” to businesses, said Larry Karns, who was representing the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

Karns’ comment was repeated by representatives for the National Federation of Independent Business-Kansas, Kansas Grain and Feed Association, Kansas Association of School Boards and the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce.

The groups said they feared the change would result in a large increase in workers’ comp premiums.

“We are sympathetic to injured workers, but we just don’t feel that now is the time to pass this additional cost on to business,” said Dave Holtwick of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce.

Wysong agreed that this would be a bad time to increase the cost of business, but noted that the caps have been in effect a long time.

“When is the good time? Should this have been done in the mid-’90s? You don’t do it in a recession-depression, you do it in the good times, and it wasn’t done,” Wysong said.

At one point, Wysong suggested having the issue studied by an interim committee after the session is over.

But state Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, disagreed.

“I give up on the interim committees. They never get anything done. I want something to happen on this,” Reitz said.

Labor groups, trial lawyers and worker advocates support the bill.

On Tuesday, Delbert and Shirley Young of Wichita said their financial future was up in the air after Delbert suffered a spinal cord injury while working at Boeing and could no longer work because of a permanent disability.

“We’ve had a hard time since this man has stopped working,” Shirley Young said as her husband sat beside her in a wheelchair. She asked lawmakers to increase the caps. “It may not help us … but, for God’s sake, fix it for the next person.”