Trust is the currency of government. With trust, solutions can be found to tough problems. Shrill partisan divisions and bitterness are the enemies of trust, since they inevitably result in public dissatisfaction.
Too often in legislative bodies there’s little effort to find common ground. Solutions aren’t valued. Instead, each side makes proposals that they know to be unacceptable to the other but that will be embraced by their voter base in the next election. Trust in government is the victim of that win-lose approach.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Minnesota’s unique method of making policy for workers’ compensation in recent decades shows that, through negotiations, those with different beliefs and interests can find solutions and build trust and public satisfaction.
A little background. “Work comp” is the century-old system that requires employers to pay for employees’ workplace injuries. In return, employees waive their right to sue employers for negligence.
From the late 1970s through the mid 1990s, work comp was one of the Legislature’s most contentious issues. That’s not the case today. I know, having served previously as the Department of Labor and Industry’s deputy commissioner and commissioner from 1986-1990. Employers then vociferously complained of exorbitant insurance premiums, while injured employees said the system was too slow and complicated in getting benefits to them. Grievances from insurers, lawyers and medical and rehabilitation providers added to the acrimony.
Every session there were close legislative votes preceded by midnight meetings, angry editorials, shouting matches, threats and near fisticuffs.
In 1995 legislators, tired of the fighting, informally agreed that before passage, all future workers’ comp bills would need to be recommended by a labor-business Workers Compensation Advisory Council. If the WCAC didn’t approve a bill, it would not be approved by either legislative chamber. The purpose was to place responsibility for resolving differences, before the Legislature acted, in the hands of those most affected by statutory changes — employers and workers.
Six representatives each from business and organized labor make up the WCAC. The four legislative caucuses and the governor each appoint one labor and one business representative. The heads of the state’s largest labor group, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, and the state’s largest business group, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, are permanent members. The Department of Labor and Industry provides staffing, and its commissioner serves as nonvoting chair.
By law, WCAC approval requires a near consensus of members — the assent of two-thirds of both the labor and business delegations — so a single contrarian labor or business representative can’t tip the voting balance against the interests of his or her own group.
Since 2011 the WCAC has recommended four major work comp bills to the Legislature, each the product of labor-business compromise. None were revolutionary but each was a significant advance — administrative procedures streamlined, cash benefits increased and hospital inpatient and outpatient medical care charges controlled. The Legislature passed each bill, either unanimously or near unanimously. Scoring partisan points in committee or floor debate meant less to legislators than knowing that both business and labor backed a measure.
In early negotiations, other interests such as insurance or health care were at times involved. But final agreement was always hammered out between labor and business. One year, discussions leading to an agreement took only several weeks. On the other hand, the very comprehensive and much-applauded 2018 bill required almost two years of negotiations and wasn’t approved by the WCAC until eight days before the session’s end. Even though the time was short, both houses unanimously approved the 2018 legislation knowing that neither business, led by Doug Loon of the Minnesota Chamber, nor labor, led by Bill McCarthy of the state AFL-CIO, would negotiate a bad deal for their supporters.
With business-labor agreement required, since the late 1990s extreme pro-business or pro-labor measures have been avoided. Consequently, the work comp system is more stable and predictable, resulting in lower insurance premiums for employers and consistent benefit increases for injured workers.
Could Minnesota’s work comp approach be used in other policy areas? Yes. Away from the spotlight, parties have the time and space to listen, learn and better understand each other. The elusive sweet spot of overlapping interests and goals can be found. The work comp approach has succeeded in making a once-volatile issue into one where those involved believe differences can be resolved by talking to each other.
Ken Peterson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.