Workers' comp marina relief moves to Senate

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House approves measure exempting boatyards from costly longshore insurance requirements

The wheels of progress turn slowly in Washington, especially during a presidential election year. However, they eventually catch up with economic realities, or so hope the many recreational marine industry supporters of a key workers’ compensation measure.

The provision would exempt boatbuilders, repair yards and marinas from the costly and often cumbersome process of insuring workers under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

It passed the U.S. House of Representatives in April as part of the massive Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2007. Authored by Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Fla., it exempts all boatyard and marina repair workers and boat manufacturing workers employed on vessels under 165 feet from the workers’ comp act coverage with one major exception — they must be covered by state workers’ compensation programs.

A 1984 amendment to the act, which originally became law in 1927, exempted boatbuilding workers and repair people on boats up to 65 feet. At that time, few recreational boats exceeded that length, a clear sign of how recreational boat building has expanded into larger craft. Under current law, if a manufacturer builds just one boat over 65 feet, those workers must be covered by the federal law.

The provision has garnered solid bipartisan congressional support, said Kristina Hebert, vice president of operations for Ward’s Marine Electronics in Fort Lauderdale, and the bill is now before the U.S. Senate as part of the Coast Guard bill. “We are hopeful that the measure will pass this summer,” she said.

If passed, it would save an average repair yard or manufacturer with 10 or fewer employees about $100,000 a year in insurance premiums by allowing them to cover employees under state workers’ compensation plans. Hebert said in the vast majority of cases, the states provide coverage equal to or better than that offered under the federal law.

“A broad coalition of the industry is behind this, including the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association and trade groups along the East Coast and Pacific Northwest,” she said.

For five years, the recreational marine industry has pushed for a new exemption from the federal workers’ comp act, starting in March 2003 with the introduction of the Recreational Marine Employment Act by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla. The bill garnered solid industry support, but was opposed by the AFL-CIO, which argued that the bill would leave workers covered by less attractive workers’ compensation plans. However, proponents of the current provision dispute that, claiming state workers’ comp benefits in 49 states are equal to federal benefits, and exceed them in four states as a percentage of earnings. Nonetheless, the bill never passed.

With a strong push from the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, of which Hebert is a past president and now head of the organization’s government relations committee, a new approach was taken in the form of adding a more targeted change to the existing law and attaching it to the current Coast Guard Authorization bill.

The big question at this point is: Will the provision pass the Senate in its current form? And, if so, will the Coast Guard authorization pass in the current Congress? With summer approaching, followed by election campaigning, time is running short.

“We are doing our best to keep this from becoming political,” said Hebert, acknowledging the challenge. Still, she remains hopeful that relief for boatbuilding and repair businesses and their workers is finally in sight.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue.

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