JEFFERSON CITY — In a move that Republicans contend will make Missouri more attractive to businesses, the state Senate approved legislation Thursday to expand the workers' compensation program.
The measure, approved with a largely party-line 28-6 vote, would cover occupational diseases under the workers' compensation program — freeing businesses from potentially costly litigation. It would also allow employees to sue their co-workers for injuries sustained on the job only if the injury was "purposefully and dangerously" caused.
Senate leaders said that change will more fairly protect workers from having to pay large court judgments for injuries caused in accidents.
"Workers don't carry insurance for these types of claims, and nor should they," said Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, who sponsored the legislation.
Occupational diseases, such as those caused by on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins, were removed from the workers' compensation program under a 2005 law. Those cases have since been handled in civil courts. Republicans say returning it to the state program would give business a better idea of how much they owe employees.
Opponents say the system would not be able to fairly compensate people who suffer from some occupational diseases, such as those caused by asbestos exposure or toxic chemicals.
St. Louis County Democratic Sen. Tim Green drafted — but did not offer — an amendment that would have excluded occupational diseases from the compensation program. He said curable injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome aren't similar to lethal diseases such as mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can be caused by exposure to asbestos.
"I don't think they should be treated the same," Green said. "Putting it back in the workers compensation system isn't right, and that's what this bill did."
The legislation would also prevent undocumented immigrants or people who are in prison from collecting workers' compensation benefits.
In a statement issued after the Senate vote, Dempsey and President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said the changes would help make it easier for businesses to create jobs because companies would no longer have to carry as much liability insurance.
"We acted quickly on this bill because it is an important step in creating a climate where businesses will want to expand," said Mayer, R-Dexter.
The bill now goes to the state House, where a workplace safety committee endorsed similar legislation this week. Both the House and Senate approved versions of workers' compensation legislation last year, but could not agree on a final bill.
Dempsey said Thursday that the primary sticking point in last year's negotiations was a section dealing with the Second Injury Fund, which pays benefits to people with disabilities who sustain additional injuries at their job.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Chris Koster said the fund is in danger of becoming insolvent, as its amount has declined since 2005, when employers' contributions to the fund were capped at 3 percent of their workers' compensation insurance premium.
A provision dealing with the fund was removed from the Senate bill before it passed this week, and Dempsey introduced a separate bill Thursday to deal with the Second Injury Fund. Dempsey said he thinks separating the issues will give the bill passed Thursday a better chance of becoming law.