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April 16, 2002

L&I cracks down on unregistered residential wood framers

TUMWATER - The Department of Labor & Industries has stepped up its efforts to sign up residential wood framers in the state's workers' compensation program, appealing to homebuilders and general contractors to not hire framers who don't contribute to the state system.

"Our goal is to get general contractors to work with us and not use these subcontractors who aren't contributing," said Kathy Vargas, a Region 4 auditor based in Vancouver. "If illegal framers can't get the work, they'll either get legal or be out of business."

The crackdown is the latest step in a framing initiative L&I launched last summer. The initiative has two goals: to reduce injuries, and to increase participation in the state-run workers' compensation program. Accomplishing both objectives has the potential to lower the premiums paid by framers who comply with state law and contribute to the insurance plan.

Though the numbers are tentative, early indications are the initiative is working. Between July and December of last year, eye injuries declined 32 percent. Injuries caused by falls from ladders were down 17 percent.

During that same period, L&I nearly tripled the number of safety inspections and contacts it made with contractors. The program also has signed up about 100 residential wood framers who previously had not been been contributing to the workers' compensation fund.

The inspections also uncovered numerous small companies that owe L&I thousands of dollars in back insurance premiums. Working with area general contractors, L&I has moved to put two such Clark County companies - Framing Constructors LLC and Framing Systems LLC, both owned by Rick Reynolds - out of business.

To help in the effort, L&I is urging building trade associations and residential homebuilders to not do business with framers who aren't registered and don't contribute to the workers' compensation fund. One argument the agency is using to persuade general contractors to participate is that under state law, they ultimately are liable for unpaid workers' compensation premiums.

Contractors can verify a framer's status online by going to L&I's Web site. Once there, click on Specialty Compliance, and then scroll down to Contractor Premium Status Information and click on that. You can check on a contractor's status by either typing in the company's name or UBI number. Contractors also can check on a subcontractor by phoning L&I's office in Vancouver at 360-896-2304.

Initially, the agency will focus its efforts in Clark County. Already it has increased safety inspections, and is writing up any residential construction project found not to be in compliance with state law. Throughout this spring and summer, the beefed-up inspection program will spread throughout the state.

"We want a level playing field, so that contractors who contribute to the fund and pay their fair share aren't at a financial disadvantage," said L&I Director Gary Moore. "Our goal isn't to cause unnecessary delays with our inspections. But we are determined to make this industry safer. And we are going to increase the number of framers who contribute to workers' compensation."

As a risk class, the building construction industry pays an average premium of $1.40 to the State Fund for every hour of work. Because of their poor safety record, and because so many residential wood framers avoid contributing to the fund, the premium for framers is nearly $1.98. And unlike many other trades in the construction industry, the premium for framers went up this year.

Labor & Industries manages the workers' compensation system in Washington. It oversees premium payments and benefits for about 160,000 employers and 1.8 million workers.

Over the past year, L&I has dramatically increased its pursuit of employers, workers and providers who commit fraud. Dozens of workers have received fraud orders to repay workers' compensation benefits they collected illegally. Some of those orders have been in excess of $400,000.

In one case, the owner of a hearing aid company went to jail for bilking L&I. And in the past few months, criminal charges were filed against a Brush Prairie couple for failing to pay employment taxes for the three businesses they own. That case is scheduled to go to trial in July in Clark County Superior Court.

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