Over the last several years, state legislatures around the country have waged an all-out assault on working people. The latest takes place in California, where the State Assembly is holding hearings on AB 1309, a bill that would effectively prohibit professional football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey players at the major and minor league levels from accessing the state's workers compensation system. Currently, California has one of the only systems in the country that doesn't restrict filing a claim to within a certain time after an injury, thereby allowing players to file claims for cumulative trauma, i.e., injuries that build up over a career of intense physical strain and often don't manifest until decades later. Introduced by Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno), this bill would limit the time frame for submitting claims and is supported, of course, by the usual big corporate suspects: owners of professional sports teams and insurance companies.
Don't be fooled. AB 1309 is not just a simple adjustment to California's workers compensation law; it's the latest in a long line of examples of greedy employers shirking their responsibility for covering injuries that workers suffer on the job. Contrary to popular belief, NFL players do not receive lifetime benefits from the league, so team owners basically get off scot-free when it comes to compensating players for the long-term health effects of a pro football career. According to a recent Washington Post article, "The NFL's health insurance lasts five years after retirement -- players who lasted fewer than three seasons don't qualify for it at all -- leaving players whose injuries develop years after their careers ended with very few options. The average NFL player's career lasts just 3.9 seasons, according to the NFL Players Association's latest figures. Studies show that one in four retirees will need a joint replacement; they suffer arthritis at five times the rate of their peers and are four times as likely to suffer neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's or ALS. Critics say the NFL's medical benefits don't adequately address the full range of these problems."
Recognizing the importance of workers comp, NFL players agreed in the last collective bargaining agreement to deduct the amount of money paid into the league's workers comp fund from the salary cap. In other words, players agreed to make less money up front to ensure funds were available later for workers comp claims that may arise. Despite that concession, the league and team owners are flexing their incredible political muscle to change the workers compensation benefits available to athletes - even though the athletes have already paid into the system.
This bill is nothing more than a test case for employers who want to gut workers' rights laws and lower standards in California. Whether it's the football field or the factory floor, sports team owners and CEOs alike all bear some responsibility for their employees' health and safety. Passage of this bill will ultimately impact all workers, not just professional athletes. We know that big business is always looking for ways to reduce its responsibility to workers under the law; if team owners can limit their obligation to players under California's workers compensation system, employers in other industries will use AB 1309 as a model to limit rights for other workers hurt on the job. It might start with professional athletes, but you better believe that the corporate-backed legislators are coming for teachers, nurses, retail workers and truck drivers next.
Not surprisingly, AB 1309's author received nearly $8,000 in contributions from Walmart between 2011 and 2012. And nearly eight percent of his contributions come from insurance companies. Why wouldn't Walmart and other big corporate political donors ask Perea and other legislators to support legislation that limits the ability of construction workers, transport workers, and firefighters to receive compensation for work-related injuries next? If they're willing to scale back the rights of players unquestionably hurt in the service of their employer in front of millions on television, imagine what rights they'll take from workers hurt in the obscurity of a factory to gain a few more corporate dollars in the campaign coffers.
Across every industry, employers are responsible for paying approved workers comp claims - the league's wholesale denial of so many of those claims is why the NFL players agreed to set aside money to help the owners pay their workers comp insurance in the first place. While players without league-provided health insurance may file claims with the NFL disability review board, that board rejects approximately 60 percent of claims. Workers comp often serves as the last and best option for players denied coverage for injuries they received on the job, and California's system in particular has been a bright spot for athletes with complicated, cumulative claims because they were able to file there provided they played a reasonable number of games (and therefore paid taxes) in California. As the Post article explains, "The question of where an injured employee can file a claim has been the subject of worker-employer skirmishing for as long as the workers' comp system has existed. Courts have generally held that a person who travels for a living, whether a flight attendant or a salesman or a football player, has the choice to file a claim in more than one jurisdiction if the worker had reasonable contact with those states."
Proponents of AB 1309 claim it protects taxpayers from footing the bill for players' claims, but taxpayers were never on the hook to begin with - players and owners were. As Dawn Neufeld, an attorney and wife of former NFL tight end Ryan Neufeld, explained on her Gridiron Goddess blog, "In reality, any player who plays a game in California ends up paying significant income taxes to the state. Out-of-state football players who travel to California and play there pay taxes in their team state and California for the money earned for that game. California collected roughly $171 million dollars in taxes from professional athletes last year. So California's economy benefits from these players' taxes, and yet state legislators are still trying to deny them benefits. In fact, AB 1309 wouldn't just prevent athletes from filing in California, it would throw out any pending cases that have been fully litigated and await decision."
But taxpayers will be paying for the injuries players suffered while owners raked in billions in profit if AB 1309 becomes law, because without access to California's workers compensation system, many players will need to rely on Social Security disability payments and Medicare for treatment of on-the-job injuries. Sound familiar? In a recent report from the minority staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce titled "The Low-Wage Drag on Our Economy: Wal-Mart's Low Wages and Their Effect on Taxpayers and Economic Growth," researchers estimated that Walmart's business practices could cost taxpayers nearly $1 million a year per store. According to a 2008 congressional research report on NFL disability, the cost of covering injured players could fall on taxpayers too. There are approximately 18,000 NFL alumni, and when they can't pay for their health care, it has an impact on "society as a whole," the report said.
We shouldn't tolerate sports team owners taking a page from Walmart's playbook to increase their profits at the expense of workers and taxpayers. It's time for these owners and insurance companies to pay their fair share and to stop hiding behind corporate lobbyists trying to threaten the health and safety of workers injured on the job everywhere.