Gustafson Logging Co. recently celebrated 45 years of being in business. Over that time, we’ve seen a lot of things in the logging industry change and evolve. Not the least of these is Oregon’s workers compensation system. It wasn’t long ago that businesses in the logging industry spent upwards of 35 cents for workers’ compensation insurance for every dollar in payroll.
But a lot has changed since Oregon reformed its system in 1990. Workers’ compensation programs today are far more focused on improving outcomes for workers and employers through a greater focus on accident prevention and returning people to work — even if in modified capacities.
A major driver of this is the work of SAIF, Oregon’s leading workers’ compensation insurer. As our business grew and we hired more people, we realized that the potential for more claims and rising costs was increasing. We reached out to SAIF, our workers’ compensation carrier, for help. With their assistance we were able to put better procedures in place. They helped us address safety issues more proactively and ensure that workers have the skills and training that they need. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an insurer so focused on prevention as SAIF.
SAIF is a well-run and well-managed organization that’s doing what it should to help small businesses like ours. Their healthy balance sheet means that rates remain reasonable and that their programs are progressive and proactive. But apparently it is true that no good deed goes unpunished.
A few months ago, Gov. Kate Brown proposed raiding SAIF’s reserves of upwards of $1.5 billion to cover unfunded liabilities within our state’s Public Employee Retirement System. While PERS has definitely dug itself a huge financial hole, its issues have nothing to do with SAIF. In fact, taking money from SAIF to cover PERS costs would jeopardize the stability of our workers’ compensation system while doing little to solve PERS’ long-term problems.
Any way you cut it, this is a terrible idea. In fact, when the Legislature tried doing this same thing in the 1980s, the idea was slapped down by the courts and the state had to pay SAIF back with interest.
SAIF doesn’t receive a direct appropriation from the state. Its income comes through money from policyholders and earnings on reserves. Reserves are important to the health of any business. They get you through down times and allow you to make investments when needed. As a SAIF policyholder, I see how SAIF is leveraging resources to help employees and employers stay safe on the job.
We’ve valued our relationship with SAIF for all 45 years that we’ve been in business. Protecting what our business and others have paid into the system is critical. Thankfully, the Legislature didn’t act on the governor’s plan. But all too often it seems like the worst of the bad ideas that come out of Salem return over, and over, and over again. Let’s hope that this is one that never reappears.
Mark Gustafson is president of Gustafson Logging Co., a family-owned business in Astoria. He holds a degree in forest engineering from Oregon State University and was named Logger of the Year by Associated Oregon Loggers earlier this year.