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Rallies Accuse Governor of Breaking Promise

By Steve Lawrence, The Associated Press
Published: April 20, 2005

SACRAMENTO—Hundreds of protesters in two cities accused Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of breaking a promise to protect injured workers when he pushed through sweeping changes in the workers’ compensation system a year ago.

“The governor has turned around and devastated the workers’ comp system,” Mark Hayes, president of a group called Voters Injured at Work, told a group of about 300 rallying on the Capitol lawn Tuesday. “The governor broke his promise to us.”

In Los Angeles, about 500 protesters marched outside the state office building, chanting “down with Arnold” after Attorney General Bill Lockyer complained that the Schwarzenegger-backed legislation had taken away benefits that help people and their families.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, said he’ll demand that the Republican governor agree to reverse cutbacks in benefits for disabled workers as the price for a state budget agreement this summer.

“When we begin to negotiate the budget this year we are going to say, ‘Governor, before we go any further we need to put an end to what that law is doing to injured workers,’” he told the Sacramento rally.

Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying the changes he negotiated last spring with the Legislature’s Democratic leaders were producing tremendous results and that more competition would further lower insurance comp costs for employers.

“We are reducing costs by getting injured workers the immediate treatment they need to get back to work faster,” he said. “(Workers’ comp insurance) rates for California businesses have already dropped by 17 percent, and more relief is on the way.”

Business groups also praised last year’s legislation and opposed any rollbacks.

Chris George, chairman of a group called the Small Business Action Committee said insurance rates are starting to come down, but haven’t come down nearly enough.

“Sacramento should stay the course and make sure the reforms passed last year are implemented,” he said. “Changing horses now, midstream, would be disastrous.”

But injured workers and their representatives paint a sharply different picture of the impact of the new law, saying it has resulted in widespread delays in workers’ comp cases, denials of physician-recommended treatments and cuts of up to 70 percent in benefits for workers with disabling injuries.

Nunez said Democrats never would have supported last year’s legislation if they knew how it would be implemented by the Schwarzenegger administration, particularly in regulations that alter how injuries are rated and, critics say, sharply reduce benefits for work-related disabilities.

Lawmakers passed a series of changes in workers’ compensation in 2003 and 2004 to respond to skyrocketing increases in the cost of workers’ comp insurance that most employers are required to buy.

According to the Department of Insurance, insurance rates have dropped 14.2 percent since lawmakers began that effort, but Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi said recently that almost all of that savings is due to the 2003 legislation signed by Schwarzenegger’s predecessor, former Gov. Gray Davis.

At the rallies, several injured workers talked about their difficulties in dealing with the workers’ comp system.

Jesse Ceniceros, a former airline mechanic who addressed the Los Angeles crowd from a motorized scooter, said he almost lost his house when a knee injury worsened because of treatment delays.

Connie Cardinalli, a member of the Voters Injured at Work board of directors, said her husband, John, killed himself last August because of the pain he suffered from workplace injuries.

“He did not take his own life,” she said. “He was murdered by a system that ignores ... the needs of injured workers.”

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