Lorena Gonzalez doesn’t shy away from a fight.

After less than two years in the state Assembly, the former San Diego labor organizer has established herself as the state’s leading advocate for workers.

Last year, Gonzalez successfully authored legislation to force companies – large and small – to provide paid sick leave to nearly all of their employees. This year, she’s urging Democrats to wade into a politically-sensitive fight over the state’s workers’ compensation system.

“People in Sacramento, given past fights, don’t want to touch workers’ comp,” Gonzalez told CalWatchdog.com in a recent interview.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because her Democratic colleagues have shied away from the issue, Gonzalez has taken on the challenge. At last weekend’s state Democratic convention, she persuaded her party to endorse her call to end gender bias in the state workers’ compensation system. In the process, Gonzalez could upset a landmark compromise that drove down rising workers’ comp costs.

Gender bias in workers’ compensation

Employers are required to purchase insurance to cover injuries sustained by their employees at the workplace. Regardless of who is at fault, injured workers are eligible to apply for benefits and receive compensation under the employer’s compensation insurance.

In cases of permanent disability, workers are evaluated on the extent of their injury. But, not all injuries can be isolated to one cause or incident. Consequently, claims must go through an apportionment process to determine how much of the injury is due to the job and how much is due to another factor or pre-existing condition.

Gonzalez contends that the apportionment process is unfair to women in permanent disability cases by providing a lower or no rating for pregnancy, menopause and breast cancer. By comparison, conditions that affect men, such as testicular and prostate cancer, receive a higher disability rating.

“With workers comp claims, women are deducted because they’re pregnant or menopausal,” Gonzalez pointed out. “The most egregious (case) is the way the workers’ comp system deals with breast cancer. A women’s breast cancer is rated 0 percent, unless she is of child-bearing age, then she gets 5 percent.”

AB305 changes ratings, apportionment in workers’ comp
To address the inequity, Gonzalez has authored Assembly Bill 305, which would prohibit pregnancy, menopause or osteoporosis from being used in the apportionment of permanent disability cases. It would also require that the impairment ratings for breast cancer be equivalent to prostate cancer.

“It’s time for our state to stop treating gender as a pre-existing condition and provide equal protection under the law for everyone with a workers’ compensation claim,” she said. “I’m pleased that Democrats as well as Republicans recognized the importance of ending discrimination against women on the job.”

Her colleagues in the state Assembly agreed and recently passed the bill on a 59-18 vote. She’s proud that seven Republican Assembly members joined Democrats in supporting the bill. Not a small achievement considering the big name opposition from a collection of business groups, including the Association of California Insurance Companies, California Chamber of Commerce, California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California Retailers Association.

Gonzalez: It’s worth the price

Ever since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s landmark reforms in the early 2000s, workers’ compensation has remained a political lightning rod. Lawmakers have largely been reluctant to make changes to the reforms that are credited with bringing down the costs of insurance.

That’s one reason why the California Democratic Party’s support could help keep lawmakers committed to the issue. The party resolution passed the general session on consent by acclimation.
“Governor Schwarzenegger’s changes and other discriminatory policies are deeply embedded into the workers’ compensation system, as evidenced by the facts that carpal tunnel syndrome – a disorder that disproportionately affects women – too often has a disability rating of 0 percent,” the party’s resolution states.

In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law some changes to the state workers’ compensation system to increase benefits and revise the factors for determining permanent disability. However, those changes were largely embraced by both parties because they were sold as reforms to keep costs in line. To her credit, Gonzalez has been willing to take the potential cost head on.

“Civil rights are inconvenient and costly,” she said. “Even if there is a very small cost, I think it’s important to uphold the civil rights of women. If we are going to talk about pay equity, then we need to talk about everything.”

It’s unclear how widespread the problem is. According to the legislative committee analysis, “Some supporters have asserted that ‘we see it every day’ while some opponents assert that the wrongs complained of simply do not occur in the workers’ compensation courts.”

Cross-posted at CalWatchDog.