Legislative Changes To Workers’ Compensation – Wisconsin and National

As we in Wisconsin wrestle with Governor Walker’s ill-advised proposal to split up an efficient and time-honored workers’ compensation system (for alleged purposes of “efficiency”), it is instructive to reflect on the legislative proposals during the first quarter of 2015 across the nation in workers’ compensation. 

A National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (NCCI) annual issue symposium in Florida reported that over 600 workers’ compensation bills were filed in the first quarter of 2015. Over 10% of these (65) deal with presumptive coverage for First Responders, giving First Responders the presumption of workers’ compensation coverage for their injuries and occupational exposures. (This is a topic that has come up a lot since the September 11 attacks, bolstered by other tragic news such as the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting).

The next most popular type of bills filed during the first quarter of 2015 included bills revising the definition of an employee (37 bills), occupational diseases (36 bills), reimbursement and fee schedules (33 bills) and indemnity benefits (32 bills).

The definition of employee versus Independent Contractor or subcontractor has been a popular issue regarding lawsuits such as Uber Technologies and Lyft, Inc. and the self-storage and moving marketplace eMove, Inc. Interestingly, on the issue of benefits (and attorney fees that apply to those benefits) “If you increase attorney fees you are likely to increase attorney involvement,” aid Lori Lovgren NCCI Division Executive of State Relations . However, she also noted: but “injured workers are going to need assistance. If the compensation to attorneys is not enough for attorneys to assist, then there is going to be an access problem.” Her reference was to the Florida Supreme Court case Ciastellanos v. Next Door Company, which explores whether attorney fee caps were constitutional.

 

Illinois Facing Proposed Rollback Of Workers’ Compensation Law

Wisconsin is not alone. While Wisconsin is facing a proposed dismantling of the basic structure of its incredibly efficient worker’s compensation program, based on the Governor’s Budget proposal, the workers in Illinois are also facing major legislative problems. As part of a series of articles in ProPublica and NPR, which discuss the overall dwindling of worker’s compensation benefits, a recent story discusses the worker’s compensation deforms currently proposed in Illinois.

One of the foremost experts on worker’s compensation, Professor John Burton, testified at an Illinois legislative hearing on the issue. Of note is that Burton’s national research generally shows that whenever and wherever the worker’s compensation eligibility standards are tightened the Social Security Disability and Medicare/Medicaid rolls go up in virtual direct proportion. Legislatures should be wary off unintended consequences on the taxpayers of alleged worker’s compensation “reforms.”

Poverty And Social Insurance

My business-owning friends harp constantly about “entitlements,” which, they say, cost them money in taxes and premiums. I routinely reply that these programs are a social safety net, the small price we pay to live together relatively peacefully  in a “civilized” nation.

My friend and Iowa workers’ comp colleague Paul Mc Andrew sent me an email that sums up this concept succinctly:

Did you know that in 2013, there were more than 25 million reasons to give thanks for social insurance? According to Census Bureau data released this fall, more than 45 million people in the U.S., or 14.5% of the nation, lived in poverty in 2013. The good news? Three vitally important social insurance programs – Social Security, unemployment insurance (UI), and workers’ compensation – and a related program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), kept the poverty rate from being much higher. Together, these four programs kept more than 25 million people out of poverty.

Workers’ Compensation alone lifted 87,000 people out of poverty in 2013, including:

  • 16,000 children; and
  • 60,000 non-elderly adults; and
  • 11,000 elderly adults aged 65+

−−Elisa Walker, National Academy of Social Insurance

We workers’ comp lawyers can only help one injured workers at a time, but collectively…..

“No Tengo Documentos”: Undocumented Workers’ Compensation

Representing injured workers in Wisconsin is a challenge; representing undocumented workers presents some additional obstacles. 

Many undocumented workers toil in extremely hazardous jobs resulting in injuries. While federal law clearly bars their employment, the real world practice of hiring undocumented workers is undeniable. The U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) have made it illegal for employers to knowingly employ undocumented workers. 

Employers have attempted to use the IRCA as a defense to deny payment to injured workers by stating they would rehire the employee were it not illegal to do so. The Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Act contains no provision for terminating disability compensation where an employee is terminated, so long as the employee is still temporarily disabled. The Commission has so indicated (see Arista-Reav Kenosha Beef, 1999 WL 370027, LIRC May 5, 1999).  The Commission has routinely rejected employer claims that undocumented workers occupy a different position under workers’ compensation because they are legally precluded from obtaining other employment until they resolve their immigration status.

Employers may still argue that certain benefits are not available given the circumstances of each case. For example, federal law requires valid citizenship to qualify for vocational rehabilitation benefits, so vocational rehabilitation (school retraining) would not be available to an illegal immigrant whose permanent restrictions cannot be accommodated by the employer due to illegal status. Denying an injured illegal immigrant Loss of Earning Capacity benefits on the notion that “but for” the illegal status, the employer could accommodate permanent restrictions is a trickier question. The Commission recently ruled in Zaldivar v. Hallmark Drywall, Claim No. 2014-WL-5350849 (Sept. 30, 2014) that an undocumented worker does in fact have a Loss of Earning Capacity and that one factor in determining that loss would be his illegal status.

Other states have wrestled with the same issue and come up with a similar result. In Iowa the Supreme Court held that an undocumented worker was indeed an employee potentially entitled to benefits. Staff Management v Jimenez, 839 N.W. 2d, 640 (Iowa 2013). The Iowa Court said the purpose of IRCA was to inhibit employment of undocumented workers, not to diminish labor protections (such as workers’ compensation) for undocumented workers. Tennessee held that an undocumented worker was an employee and had the same rights under workers’ compensation that all other employees had.  (See Torres v. Precision Ind, Inc. Tennessee Court of Appeals Aug 5, 2014). A similar result was reached in Wyoming (Herrera v. Phillips, 334 p. 3rd 1225 (Wyo. 2014), where, after an injury, the employer asked the worker: “You’re illegal, aren’t you?”.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reflects the rule in most states that an undocumented worker is an employee but once the employee recovers so that they can pursue some level of work, the disability benefits may be suspended.  Reinforced Earth v. W.C.A.B., 810A. 2d 1999 PA 2002.

Representing undocumented workers continues to pose challenges, but the courts have recognized their right to compensation for work injuries.

Alternatives to Workers’ Comp: Paranoia or Possibility

I joined a national organization of lawyers representing injured workers (the Work Injury Law and Advocacy Group) twenty years ago when it was first formed. Then, I heard horror stories about legislators messing with an otherwise stable workers’ compensation system after every election cycle. My colleagues in other states were constantly fighting battles over workers’ compensation “deform.” 

I thought we were insulated in Wisconsin because we had a workers’ compensation advisory council composed of labor and management who every two years fought out a compromise bill and submitted it to the legislature, which automatically rubber-stamped the proposed bill without changes. That changed in Wisconsin in 2014. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Republican legislature rejected the “agreed upon” bill proposed by the workers’ compensation advisory council, despite the approval of the bill by management members.

Governor Scott Walker’s most recent budget contains a provision to dismantle the workers’ compensation system as we know it. Those of us representing injured workers (and those rational members on the management side) are busy lobbying to remove the workers’ compensation dismantling provisions from the budget.

It is no secret that many major corporations dislike workers’ compensation, despite statistics indicating premiums are at their lowest for employers, and profits at their highest for insurers. However, nearly two dozen major corporations including Wal-Mart, Nordstrom’s and Safeway are behind a multi-state lobbying effort to make it harder for workers hurt on the job to collect workers’ compensation benefits. The companies have financed a lobbying group the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation (ARAWC) that has already helped write legislation designed to have employers “opt out” of a State workers’ compensation system. ARAWC has already helped write legislation in Tennessee. That group’s executive director Richard Evans told an insurance journal in November that the corporations ultimately want to change workers’ compensation laws in all fifty states. Lowe’s, Macy’s, Kohl’s, SYSCO Food Services, and several insurance companies are also part of the effort. The mission of ARAWC is to pass laws allowing private employers to opt out of the traditional workers’ compensation plans that almost every state requires businesses to carry. Employers who opt out would still be compelled to purchase workers’ compensation plans, but would be allowed to write their own rules governing when, for how long, and for which reasons an injured employee can receive medical benefits and wages. Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, already allow employers to opt out of State-mandated workers’ comp. In that state, for example, Wal-Mart has written a plan that allows the company to select the physician and the arbitration company that hears disputes. A 2012 survey of Texas companies with private plans found that less half the companies offered benefits to seriously injured employees or the families of workers who died in workplace accidents. 

Oklahoma passed an opt out measure in January 2014 and the oil and gas industry along with major retailers such as Hobby Lobby pushed hard for the change. ARAWC wants to take that Texas and Oklahoma model nationwide. Seeing the workers’ compensation provision in Wisconsin’s budget bill as part of this overall “scheme” may seem paranoid, but the history of recent “deform” legislation suggest the connection is at least a possibility. 

See the complete article at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/03/arawc-walmart-campaign-against-workers-compensation.

Workers’ Comp Programs Further Injure Injured Workers

Those of us who represent injured workers have known for a long time that workers’ compensation does not restore an injured worker to his pre-injury wage or status.  Two reports released in March show how workplace injuries have failed injured workers and leave them deeper in debt.  OSHA released a report indicating the changes in workers’ compensation programs have made it much more difficult for injured workers to receive benefits or medical expenses.  Although employers pay insurance premiums to workers’ compensation insurance companies who are supposed to pay benefits for medical expenses, employers provide just 20% of the overall financial cost of workplace injuries through workers’ compensation according to the OSHA report. 

This “cost shifting” is borne by the taxpayer.  As a result of this cost shifting, taxpayers are subsidizing the vast majority of the income and medical care costs of injured workers.  After a work injury, injured workers’ incomes average more than $30,000 lower over a decade than if they had not been injured.  Additionally, very low wage workers are injured at a disproportionate rate. 

Another report by ProPublica and National Public Radio found that 33 states have workers’ compensation laws that reduced benefits or made it more difficult for those with certain injuries and diseases to qualify for benefits.  Those hurdles, combined with employers and insurers increasing control of medical decisions (such as whether an injured worker needs surgery) reduced the worker’s likelihood of obtaining the medical care needed.

Overall, injured workers who should be paid under workers’ compensation are receiving less benefits and their medical care is being dodged by insurers and paid for by taxpayers through Medicaid and Medicare, or by increased insurance premiums for all of us through group health insurance rate increases.

Our general sense that injured workers are faring poorly is borne out by the research.

Workplace injury, illness costs being foisted on workers, government, OSHA’s Michaels says

Today’s post was shared by Jon L Gelman and comes from www.publicintegrity.org

Workers and taxpayers writ large are shouldering the costs of workplace injuries and illnesses, as the changing nature of work leaves states and employers with increasingly less liability, according to a report released today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The OSHA report, “Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job,” notes that employer-provided workers’ compensation insurance benefits cover only 21 percent of the actual costs of a workplace injury or illness, including lost wages, medical expenses and rehabilitation.

Only a fraction of workers apply for or receive benefits, the report says, because of job insecurity, fear of retaliation from employers, or because they don’t know they’re entitled to such benefits.  As  many as 97 percent of work-related illnesses  go uncompensated because symptoms are often linked to workplace exposures long after employment ends, if they are linked at all.

Most of the costs of injuries and illnesses are borne by workers themselves, according to the report.  Government programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicaid cover 16 percent, private health insurance 13 percent.

“By forcing the costs of injury and illness onto workers, their families and the taxpayer, unsafe employers have fewer incentives to eliminate workplace hazards and actually prevent injuries and illnesses from occurring,” the report…

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Worker Safety: OSHA Holds Wisconsin Furniture Plant Accountable

Today’s post comes from guest author Rod Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Just wow. The lawyers and employees who write blog posts for rehmlaw.com and truckerlawyers.com focus pretty frequently on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Nebraska and Iowa, along with Kansas and Missouri, happen to be in Region 7, so the focus is usually on those news releases from OSHA.

Every workplace safety lapse is one too many, especially when problems come to light because of an incident where a worker is injured or killed. Sometimes a person has to stop and do a double-take as to the specifics, just because the details might seem a little bit more on the extreme or unusual side. Today’s blog post focus of an Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. plant in Wisconsin fits the intense criteria very well, just because of the sheer quantity of injuries and the large fine proposed.

This link from Claims Journal gives more details. The takeaways that just make a person stop are in the numbers listed below.

In less than four years – 42 months:

  • “More than 1,000 work-related injuries”
  • “12 willful, 12 repeated and 14 serious safety violations” from an inspection after a worker lost three fingers in July
  • $1.76 million in fines proposed by OSHA: that’s $1,760,000!
  • The company was “placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program for failing to address safety hazards,” according to the Claims Journal article.

Although “Ashley Furniture said less than 1-in-4 of the cases required any time away from work … (and) the most common injury was muscle strains and sprains,” that is still a large number of incidents to consider. The article also contained this quote: “‘At Ashley, each employee’s safety and well-being is an absolute priority,’ said Steve Ziegeweid, Ashley Furniture’s director of health and safety.”

But most workers’ compensation lawyers would tend to side with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, as quoted from a news release: “Ashley Furniture has created a culture that values production and profit over worker safety, and employees are paying the price.”