CA workers comp among nation's lowest


"I think I was cheated."

Walking is a struggle for former nurse Gloria Navarro of Santa Rosa, who fell years ago while caring for a patient and has had back, hip, and leg pain ever since . The grandmother told the Senate Labor Committee Wednesday that her permanent disability checks stopped after receiving just under $3000 total.

"How is one supposed to live on $2,940 with no ability to earn an income?" asks Navarro.

Governor Schwarzenegger's 2004 sweeping workers comp overhaul helped companies because it slashed insurance rates to less than $3 per $100 in payroll.

But, injured workers say permanent disability benefits plummeted by as much as 70 percent. Senate President Don Perata's proposal to double payouts passed its first committee hearing Wednesday.

"They were in the workforce. They were doing what everybody says people should do. They get hurt and now we're punishing them and throwing them aside as though they don't matter. It's morally wrong," says Perata.

A 2006 workers comp analysis by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shows California's benefits are among the nation's lowest.

In cases of hearing loss or injury to an ear, for example, California pays out an average of $5,300; Arizona $26,000 and in Oregon, it's more than $100,000.

Employers think no changes are necessary because the reforms are working.

"The reforms have resulted in higher return-to-work rates and objective medical evaluations of workers' injuries, and the savings have been re-invested in the worker," says Cynthia Leon of the CA Manufacturers & Technology Association.

Navarro is appealing her payout, but a legislative fix may be faster.

"We're suffering because of this. I mean, we can't get anywhere," says Navarro.

The Governor has twice vetoed previous proposals to double benefits. But since his own report says the payouts are too low, supporters hope he changes his mind this time around.

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