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SEIU, Local 347 Working to Reduce Workplace Injury
By Robert Warne - January 30, 2001

With the City of Los Angeles facing a $100 million Workers' Compensation bill this financial year, contacted Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union, Local 347, to get a clearer understanding of the factors involved.

When first reported, LA's rising Workers' Compensation costs logically appeared to be tied to a rise in workplace injury and illness. Contrary to this assumption, Butcher confirmed that in LA, SEIU's work injury rates didn't rise over the last year. This assertion was consistent with the Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Labor Statistics and Research report, citing the California work injury rates had dropped.

Bottom line, said Butcher, "We are trying to drive the costs down by keeping people safer."

Butcher told, "Our biggest accomplishment towards reducing the costs associated with Workers' Compensation has been in helping to reduce the amount of days an employee is away from work. We are getting people back to work sooner, by providing an opportunity for a modified work schedule and job related duties. We are flexible. We understand that a person may not be able to return to work and immediately perform their normal work duties."

Responding to the high Workers' Compensation costs facing LA, Butcher attributed the spike in costs to be associated with ongoing medical expenses. A particular contributing factor is the legislative change of "increase in presumptive." Also there has been a shift in who has the final say: the doctor, the employer or the insurance company.

As for safety in LA, "We are trying to figure out how to make the system better. We look at other cities with successful safety programs, like Santa Ana, for example. They have an established protocol in place to prevent workplace injury or illness and procedures on how to deal with it."

The Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Labor Statistics and Research gives credit to CAL/OSHA's assistance with inspection programs for reducing the amount of workplace injury and illness.

When asked if LA was participating in CAL/OSHA inspections, Butcher replied: "Every time OSHA comes out, it is not good. The city is always paying fines for workplace violations. There are no self-enforcing procedures in place.

"Safety is important. Saying it is a step. But doing it is another step, said Butcher."

As it stands, LA only has four full-time safety professionals. And recently, the Safety Department was moved into the office of Finance and Risk Management.

"We are trying to sort out where the city is with fixing these problems, so we can figure it out and improve the system. It has been difficult to figure out where the city is at, because we've had so many different consultants giving us advice," said Butcher.

One thing that has helped to bring about change has been AB 1127. This bill provides that public entities can be sued and fined for safety violations. Public entities are now responsible for worksites, and can't claim ignorance pertaining to a safety problem. This bill has proven to be an enforcement mechanism," she said.

"Providing public safety in the workplace, for us, comes down to needing a staff dedicated to this effort," explained Butcher. "We need a staff of experienced safety professionals with a track record of fixing problems, with the ability to fix the safety problems LA faces."

Butcher sums up the dilemma the city is confronted with. "To say they are going to spend X amount of dollars on preventative safety programs, is hard to justify, when there is no way to quantify the actual amount of money it will save the city. We are dealing with elected officials with budgetary issues, and it is especially hard when the money could be spent elsewhere. We want people to understand that the city is best served by keeping people safe, healthy and on the job."


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