JEFFERSON CITY — About six weeks after he vetoed legislation that would have changed the state's workers' compensation system, Missouri's Democratic governor is signaling that he would be open to compromise with Republican lawmakers.
In a letter to Senate leaders obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon indicated he would sign legislation that would prevent employees from suing their co-workers for on-the-job injuries. The governor also said he would support a provision to the system to include deadly diseases contracted on the job.
The Republican-controlled legislature passed similar legislation earlier this year, but Nixon vetoed the measure in mid-March. The governor said then that moving occupational diseases to the workers' compensation system — instead of allowing such cases to be resolved in court — would take away workers' ability to be adequately paid for diseases that could ultimately take their life.
But in his letter, Nixon said he would be willing to sign a new version of the legislation if lawmakers meet certain conditions. For example, he said workers with terminal diseases caused by workplace exposure to toxic substances should receive a higher payment than other workers who are permanently and completely disabled. Nixon also said lawmakers should also broaden the definition of heirs who receive payments after the worker dies from an occupational disease.
"As our economy continues to grow, we must remove the uncertainty surrounding these issues for both employers and workers and keep our state moving forward," Nixon wrote.
With three weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers are currently considering several pieces of legislation to replace the bill Nixon vetoed. The most likely avenue is to insert the governor's new proposals into a House-passed measure that could be debated in the Senate this week.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which had strongly supported the original legislation, said Tuesday that Nixon's compromise position is acceptable to them.
"These cases are real, they're expensive and the issue of ensuring the exclusive remedy within workers' compensation for co-employee liability and occupational diseases is well worth what we are seeing put forward as an enhanced remedy for occupational disease," said Rich AuBuchon, the general counsel for the chamber.
Under current law, people who are permanently and totally disabled receive weekly payments equal to two-thirds of their weekly income at the time of their injury, provided that amount is not more than 105 percent of the state's average weekly wage. The state's average weekly wage as of July 2011 was about $773.08 per week, according to the state's labor department.
That means the maximum weekly benefit for the totally and permanently disabled is currently about $811.73 per week.
AuBuchon said the governor's office has proposed raising the weekly payment for people affected by toxic workplace exposures to 200 percent of the worker's weekly income, though the maximum cap would not change.
A spokesman for Nixon would not immediately elaborate Tuesday about the details of the governor's proposal. Calls to some Senate Democrats who had spoken out against moving occupational diseases into the workers' compensation system were also not immediately returned.
Current law also makes a spouse or dependent child eligible to receive a benefit after the ill worker dies. AuBuchon said Nixon would like to expand the heirs eligible to receive the benefit. For example, if the worker is not married and has no children, the proposal could potentially provide the benefit to the deceased workers' parents.
AuBuchon said the details of that provision are still being worked out. He said there is some concern about over-expansion of the group of possible heirs to the point that an unborn family member could be eligible to receive payments.
Nixon's letter does not mention overhauling the state's Second Injury Fund, which pays benefits to people with disabilities who sustain additional injuries on the job. Lawmakers and state officials have warned this year that the fund is in danger of becoming insolvent.
A spokesman for Nixon said Tuesday that the governor thinks the Second Injury Fund should be addressed in separate legislation.