SACRAMENTO — Labor unions and attorneys for injured workers are slamming Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to fold into one agency three state boards that decide workplace issues.
The plan is part a sweeping government reorganization that the governor proposed in his State of the State speech Wednesday, a plan that would eliminate more than 100 government boards and commissions.
Schwarzenegger wants to combine the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board, the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board into one, nine-member commission. All of the members of what one administration lobbyist dubbed "the ubercommission" would be appointed by the governor and could be dismissed at any time.
The three panels rule on disputes between workers and employers over such matters as medical treatment and disability awards in workers' comp cases, eligibility for unemployment benefits and fines and penalties against companies for safety violations.
The proposal, which could go into effect in 90 days if not rejected by the Legislature, is being touted by Schwarzenegger as a reform measure that would end the long-standing practice by outgoing governors of packing little-known state panels with their political cronies.
The governor wants more control over the appointees, who typically earn six-figure salaries, serve extended terms and sometimes fail to show up for work, said Victoria Bradshaw, secretary of Schwarzenegger's Labor and Work Development Agency.
"There is no way to have any accountability," she said.
Labor unions, however, condemn the proposal as a "gigantic power grab" that would strip the appeals boards of their judicial independence, making all members vulnerable to immediate dismissal if they make politically unpalatable rulings.
"We don't want one person to control our rights to judicial relief if we get laid off or injured or have a health and safety problem," said Angie Wei, a lobbyist for the California Federation of Labor.
Observers noted that the governor submitted his reorganization plan at an awkward moment for the seven-member workers' comp appeals board, which is struggling to fill in the blanks of an April 2004 law that overhauled the state's troubled system for providing medical care and disability benefits to victims of on-the-job injuries.
"This is a crucial time for everybody in the workers' comp system," said Merle Rabine, chairman of the quasi-judicial appeals board.
The members of the proposed superagency -- it would be called the Employment and Benefits Appeals Board -- would have to juggle three distinct areas of employment law: injured workers, unsafe working conditions and unemployment payments.
"There is no way that an unemployment insurance administrative law judge can come close to understanding the complexities of the workers' compensation law," said John Floyd, a Calabasas attorney who defends employers in workers' comp cases.
In trying to take firmer control of the boards, particularly with workers' compensation, Schwarzenegger may be trying to ensure that judges' decisions are in line with administration policies, said Michael Shaw of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The Legislature can be expected to closely vet the governor's reorganization, said Steve Maviglio, deputy chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). Maviglio resigned three days ago as an appointee of former Gov. Gray Davis to the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.
"It shouldn't be a shock to anyone that he is going after boards and commissions that are important to labor," he said.