POLITICS
11/10/2011 09:36 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2012

Workers' Comp: Senators Look To Slash Benefits For Disabled Civil Servants

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are looking to cut benefits for federal workers disabled on the job, a budget-trimming move that critics warn could leave many injured civil servants and their families without enough to live on in retirement.

With support from Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs moved forward Wednesday with a Postal Service reform bill that would apply broad workers' compensation reforms to all federal workers. Disabled federal employees who have reached retirement age generally receive between 66 and 75 percent of the salary they had at the time of their injury, but the bill pushed by Lieberman and Collins would cut that to 50 percent for many workers.

Some employees who aren't at retirement age would also lose benefits they receive for children or other dependents they care for. Under the Senate plan, some people who are already totally disabled would not lose their benefits thanks to a grandfather clause, although those disabled in the future would see reductions.

Ron Watson, a workers' comp expert at the National Association of Letter Carriers, says the possible cuts are "intentionally targeted at injured workers with families, their widows and widowers, and the elderly."

But in a Senate hearing Wednesday, Collins suggested the cuts were targeted at nonagenarians who are bleeding the workers' comp system, citing federal workers who are "99-years-old" and still collecting a substantial portion of their salaries from old workplace injuries. She also said the White House has shown support for many of the proposed reforms.

"These are not draconian changes," Collins said of the bill. "We've worked very hard to come up with a fair approach. This involves substantial money."

Opponents of the legislation say no one has looked closely at how these cuts would affect disabled workers financially, particularly those on the lower end of the wage scale. They also worry that the bill will serve as a model for the congressional super committee, the body tasked with reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) has been the most vocal skeptic of the workers' comp changes, urging his colleagues to study the issue further before acting.

"We may set benefits too low, seriously harming disabled workers," Akaka said Wednesday. "We must not make arbitrary cuts that could harm the disabled ... who sustained injuries in the service of their country."

For decades the federal workers' compensation program has been considered the benchmark for such programs across the country, providing a generous lifeline for civil servants who can no longer perform their duties because of on-the-job injuries. Lawmakers have talked time and again about the need to reform the program due to costs, but new political pressures to trim the federal budget have made changes all the more likely.

Unions for federal employees have been watching the debate closely. Last week a group of 13 unions sent a letter to Lieberman voicing their "strong objections" to the inclusion of broad workers' compensation reform in a bill meant to address only the Postal Service's financial problems. Postal employees account for about 40 percent of the disbursements under the workers' comp law, known as the Federal Employees' Compensation Act, or FECA.

"The proposed legislation would impose a substantial and unfair income reduction for federal employees who simply came to work one day ready to serve their country but tragically suffered an injury that took away their ability to ever work again," union officials wrote.

A Democratic aide in the House told HuffPost that the cuts would disproportionately hurt workers who were disabled at a young age or while in a low-wage position. Workers' comp benefits are tax-free and will remain so, he noted, but that does little good for a low-income earner who's already paying little in taxes.

"The core premise around workers comp is that you should be no better off and no worse off" after the injury, the aide said. "But with this bill many people will be far worse off, particularly on the lower end of the wage scale."

At Wednesday's hearing, Collins said the committee had adopted "most" of the recommendations put forth by the White House, which could save $500 million over the course of ten years.

But the savings could come at a great cost for disabled workers, said Joe Mansour, a workers' comp expert with the Council of Prison Locals, which represents prison employees. Mansour told HuffPost that his groups' members are vulnerable to stabbings and other assaults by inmates, and that they'll see less compensation under the Senate bill in the event of a disabling attack.

"It's punitive for being injured," Mansour said. "They're saying don't be involved in any serious accidents, because you're going to go home and make a lot less money."

CORRECTION: This post originally said that Collins pegged the savings at $500 billion. In fact, it was $500 million.