Category Archives: Legislation

Advisory Council Bill Is A Compromise …But The Alternative Is Chaos

Those of us representing injured workers were recently forced into a somewhat difficult decision regarding proposed changes to Wisconsin workers’ compensation law.  As discussed in prior posts, two parallel bills were proposed, one sponsored by the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council (SB-536 / AB-724) and one sponsored by Republican Representative Spiros (AB-501)  The Spiros bill—aka the worker’s compensation destruction bill —would have completely altered the nature of 100 years of workers’ compensation in Wisconsin, adding the concept of “fault” back into a no-fault system that has been operating based on that premise for a century.  Additionally, the work comp destruction bill would have reduced the Statute of Limitations for filing the claim and claiming medical benefits on the claim from the current twelve years to an incredibly harsh two years. 

The agreed-upon Advisory Council Bill (WCAC bill) also contains benefits for injured workers as well as employer-friendly provisions, some coming at the expense of injured workers. For example, employees who are fired for misconduct or substantial fault could be denied workers’ compensation benefits based upon a definition of misconduct imported from the Unemployment Compensation system. Unemployment Compensation law defines misconduct as a worker showing such a willful disregard of an employer’s interest to be a deliberate violation, or carelessness or negligence showing wrongful intent suggesting an intentional substantial disregard of an employer’s interests. Quite simply, under this provision, injured workers might lose their jobs because of misconduct or substantial fault, thus losing out on both Unemployment Compensation and Workers’ Compensation benefits.

Additional provisions of the WCAC bill would deny benefits to those workers whose injuries have been caused by the use of alcohol or drugs. The Statute of Limitations reduced from twelve to a reasonable six years for traumatic injuries.  Significantly, the workers’ compensation insurance carrier can now ask for medical support to apportion pre-existing disability, which should trigger a substantial increase in litigation. 

Some would suggest that the Advisory Council bill is not “worker-friendly.” It is more appropriately viewed as a COMPROMISE. Labor and management representatives bargained for the changes. The Advisory Council bill is the result of give-and-take compromise and an acknowledgement by labor of the current political reality in Wisconsin.   In any compromise, parties get and give up certain things.  This compromise is the stabilizing force for the successful worker’s compensation system in our state. Lone wolf legislation without consideration by the compromises of the Advisory Council should be rejected. 

Support the Advisory Council process and Agreed-Upon Bill.

Work Comp Advisory Council Officially Produced an Agreed-Upon Bill

As anticipated, on December 22, 2015, the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council (WCAC) approved its Agreed-Upon Bill.  The official statutory language and bill summary can be found here. The bill now goes to the Wisconsin legislature for consideration and, hopefully, passage.

Production of this Agreed-Upon bill underscores the success and stabilizing hand of the Advisory Council.  The WCAC, composed of members of labor and management (including the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce), typically produced a biennial “agreed upon” bill for approval by the Legislature. The WCAC produces reasoned, incremental changes that maintain the stability of the system for all stakeholders—employers, carriers, and workers.  The WCAC immunized the substance of the Wisconsin WC system from partisan politics and election cycle swings commonly found in other states.

The Advisory Council bill deserves full support of all Wisconsinites that care about our nationally respected worker’s compensation system.  There is, however, lone wolf legislation floating about.  We previously talked about a bill (being pushed by Rep. John Spiros, head of the Trucking Industry Defense Association) that is properly seen as the “worker’s compensation destruction bill.” These ideas in the Spiros-led bill (AB-501) were NOT considered or vetted by the Advisory Council.  The Council protects against just this sort of unchecked effort—protecting against random or crackpot ideas from severely damaging the reputable system.

In stark contrast, the Advisory Council carefully considered changes and produced a reasoned bill that improves or system and benefitsall stakeholders, especially the employers of our state.  Indeed, some “employer-friendly” provisions include the following:

  • A worker’s violation of alcohol or drug policy (if causally related to the injury) denies benefits.
  • No lost time benefits (TTD) if terminated for good cause (using recent unemployment standards)
  • A reasonable and manageable reduction in statute of limitations from 12 to 6 years.
  • Establishing a Dept of Justice position for investigating/prosecuting WC fraud.
  • Apportionment of functional PPD payments, so employers not responsible for pre-injury disability amounts.

Workers also have some incremental, important benefits in the Agreed-Upon bill.  The permanent partial disability payments receive slight annual increases.  Workers also will be allowed to work a certain amount of hours while pursuing academic retraining without having a decrease in work comp benefits, and workers will be allowed to ask a judge for “prospective” retraining claims (benefitting a worker who does not have the financial ability to enroll in school unless the work comp carrier will be paying).

The Advisory Council bill maintains the stability of Wisconsin’s first-class worker’s compensation system.  Lone wolf legislation should be dismissed. We urge the Wisconsin legislature to whole-heartedly endorse the reasoned Advisory Council bill.

States with Opt-Out Workers’ Comp System are Strict on Injured Workers

Dallas attorney Bill Minick (Photo credit Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica)

Today’s post comes from guest author Hayes Jernigan, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

Texas and Oklahoma have both adopted an “opt-out” system for Workers’ Compensation. ProPublica along with NPR recently published an in-depth look at the results in these two states. Under this system, employers can opt-out of state mandated workers’ compensation insurance by creating their own policy for injured workers. These employer-written policies give employers 100% control over the terms, the benefits, and even settlements.

Specifically, ProPublica and NPR found that these employer-created policies generally have strict 24-hour reporting requirements or even require an injury to be reported by the end of a shift. This means, if an employee does not report their injury within their shift, or within 24 hours, they are prevented from bringing a claim at all. Period. End of discussion. Employers can also dictate how much benefits will be paid and some employers have capped death benefits for employees who are killed at work at $250,000. Whereas under the State Workers’ Compensation system, if a deceased worker leaves behind minor children, they will continue to receive benefits until they turn 18 (which could easily end up being well over $250,000 when you factor in lost wages until the worker would have been 65). This is potentially detrimental to a young widow or widower who is left with very young children.

This morning we tweeted a recent ABC news article that a worker was killed when he fell at a construction site in Charlotte. I’d hate to think that his or her family would be limited to recovering only $250,000 in the event the worker left behind dependent family members and young children. Money can’t begin to replace someone who is lost to us too early from an accident at work, but $250,000 would hardly cover a lifetime of income that the family will lose, especially if young children are left behind.

 

To read more on how the Opt-Out system is affecting injured workers in Texas and Oklahoma, go to: ProPublica: Inside Corporate America’s Campaign to Ditch Workers’ Comp.

LEGISLATIVE ALERT: Worker’s Compensation Destruction Bill?

Time to wake up Wisconsinites! In a short timeframe, the current administration and legislature in Wisconsin has altered the landscape of our state in ways too numerous to count. Well, now we face another attempt to make-over and deform a progressive era landmark: Wisconsin’s Worker’s Compensation System.

A recent bill (LRB 1768) proposes direct and major changes to our state’s nationally recognized model worker’s compensation (WC) system. The proposed changes would dramatically alter and potentially devastate the stability of the system for all stakeholders. We urge all legislators not to support LRB 1768. Instead, there will be a separate, reasoned bill produced by the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council.

Current System Works for All Stakeholders

Under the grand bargain of Wisconsin’s first-in-the-nation WC system from 1911, injured workers gave up the right to court lawsuits in exchange for timely, lesser, defined benefits without having to prove fault. Employer, in turn, are protected from unknown jury damage awards. Employers purchase WC insurance for this administrative dispute resolution process. The system safeguards the concept that work injury expenses appropriately are an employer’s cost of doing business rather than costs shifted to taxpayers through public assistance such as disability payments and Medicare and Medicaid.

The current system is highly effective for all stakeholders—making our system the gold standard compared to the rest of the country. Wisconsin traditionally has low and stable employer premiums. We have over 300 private section WC insurance carriers collecting premiums (in excess of $1.7 billion). We have faster return to work rates than in most states. We have incredibly low litigation costs and low litigation rates (only 10-15% of work injuries).

Work Comp Advisory Council (WCAC) is the bedrock of Wisconsin’s WC system 

Much of the credit for the beneficial metrics in our national model is from the stability offered by the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council (WCAC). This Council, composed of voting members of labor and management (including the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, WMC), has typically produced a biennial “agreed upon” bill for approval by the Legislature. The WCAC produced reasoned, incremental changes that maintained the stability of the system for all stakeholders—employers, carriers, and workers. The WCAC generally has immunized the substance of the Wisconsin WC system from partisan politics and election cycle swings commonly found in other states.

Importantly, the WCAC successfully produced a reasoned Agreed Upon bill in the past weeks! (more details below).

The Proposed GOP Bill (LRB 1768) Would Decimate Worker’s Compensation in Wisconsin

A recent video highlights the egregious nature of the proposed bill:

The bill proposed by GOP legislators was not from or considered by the Advisory Council—it is an end-run around the stability-producing model.  LRB 1768 is a direct legislative attack on the WC system, introducing dramatic and foreign concepts to our system. Among the more outlandish proposal are the following:

  • Reducing WC benefits by amount of employee negligence!
    • This proposal eviscerates the “grand bargain” of WC, whereby a worker who suffers an on-the-job injury receives lower, defined benefits without regard to fault and employers, in turn, are protected from unknown jury damage awards.
    • It would force employees to prove the injury was not their fault while still protecting employers with the WC exclusive remedy (and with no corresponding change in benefits for employer negligence/fault)
    • Also, without any method provided for determining negligence, there would be a massive increase in uncertainty, litigation, and claims costs/premium. 
  • Employer-Directed Medical Care
    • Currently, workers have the right to medical providers of their choosing—creating a system where workers have access to timely, specialized medical care. This quality, unrestricted medical care produces great results: faster return to work rates than most states in the country!
    • Proposed employer-directed medical care allows the employer to choose a specific practitioner for an injured worker (e.g., a podiatrist could be designated to address work injuries, including a back claim). As such, a worker may not receive the appropriate specialized medical care, like physical therapy, chiropractor, psychology, or orthopedic specialist.
    • Employer directed medical care likely means a race to the bottom, focusing on which doctors best minimize WC benefits. The focus should be on swift access to quality medical care.
  • Harsh Reduction from 12 year to Two (2)-Year Statute of Limitations (SOL)
    • WC injuries can result in lengthy healing periods and long-term medical care.
    • A 2 year SOL directly cost-shifts the burden for WC injuries to the taxpayers (Medicaid, Medicare, SSDI).  Taxpayers should not be left holding the bag for the cost of work injuries.
    • A 2 year SOL will result in exponential litigation of WC claims.  WC attorneys will be forced to file applications on any/all claims to preserve the SOL.  Wisconsin could turn into Illinois (!) where litigation rates are 80-85%, versus our current 10-15% rate.
  • Elimination of PPD ratings
    • Current law utilizes minimum permanent partial disability ratings, established by an independent panel of physicians decades ago.
    • The GOP proposed bill would eliminate PPD minimums.  Further explosion in litigation would result as previously uncontested claims would now result in disputes between worker and adverse physician ratings.
    • Notably, the recently-produced WCAC bill provided a reasoned approach to any concerns over PPD ratings, by recommending an independent physician panel review of the ratings.
  • Elimination of benefits if misrepresentation on employment application
    • This ill-considered provision precludes benefits if an employee lied about physical condition on employment application.
    • Such a provision introduces potentially discriminatory quizzing of prospective employees.  It further introduces more litigation issues into this no fault system

The cumulative effect of the GOP bill provisions were not adequately deliberated. The result would be an exponential increase in litigation and a destabilizing effect on the WC system—meaning increased litigation costs, lengthy delays in claims, and increased employer premiums. Any crack in the grand bargain could open the floodgates to potential unlimited damages in personal injury liability lawsuits. One major injury could result in significant jury awards (See http://nypost.com/2014/12/18/injured-construction-worker-gets-record-62m-single-plaintiff-award/)

In stark contrast is the recent WCAC bill ….

WCAC Successfully Produced a Reasoned Reform Bill

The Advisory Council, on October 26, 2015, successfully produced an Agreed-Upon WC Bill. This reasoned WCAC bill was agreed to by labor and management—including the Wis. Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), who sit on the Council. All stakeholders should get behind this Advisory Council bill. The full statutory language will be available in the upcoming weeks.

As opposed to the GOP bill (LRB 1768), the Advisory Council bill creates WC changes that benefit all stakeholders, especially the employers of our state. Some “employer-friendly” provisions include the following:

  • Worker’s violation of alcohol or drug policy (if related to injury) denies benefits.
  • No lost time benefits (TTD) if terminated for good cause (using recent unemployment standards)
  • A reasonable and manageable reduction in statute of limitations from 12 to 6 years  (vs a 2 year SOL which would drastically alter the system).
  • Establishing DOJ position for investigating/prosecuting WC fraud.
  • Apportionment of functional PPD payments, so employers not responsible for pre-injury disability amounts.

Thus, the Advisory Council produced a bill that addressed many management/employer concerns about the WC system. The Advisory Council listened and—as it has done for decades—successfully produced reasoned changes to the system. The stability of the system is preserved for all stakeholders. The WCAC Agreed-Upon Bill should be supported.

WILG Turns 20! Worker’s Injury Law And Advocacy Group 20th Anniversary

I joined WILG in its 1995 inaugural year. At those early conferences, my colleagues around the nation were battling workers’ comp “deform,” and engaged in political battles in their respective states, lobbying legislators on behalf of injured workers’ rights.

I thought I was relatively insulated in Wisconsin, the national “model” state for workers’ comp, with an Advisory Council composed of management and labor which each biennium produced an “agreed-upon” bill that was accepted by the legislature.

The Republican ascendancy in Wisconsin (Scott Walker as Governor, and both Assembly and Senate controlled by Republicans) has decided to ignore 100 years of progressive legislation and ignore the Advisory Council’s recommendations. This dangerous precedent will make workers’ comp more politicized, and threaten the stability of Wisconsin’s workers’ comp system. Wisconsin, like other states, will be part of a “race to the bottom” in workers’ rights and benefits.

WILG’s current President, Matt Belcher of Illinois, provided this summary of the state of workers’ comp as WILG celebrates its 20th anniversary:

”We have never been better positioned as a national organization to advocate on behalf of the families of injured workers.

Recent success in reviewing courts have highlighted nationally the unconstitutional danger posed to the community when injured workers lose access to effective legal representation, have capricious benefit limits imposed upon them, or are disabled due to unfair medical treatment bureaucracies.

WILG and its members have been at the fore of litigation battles where catastrophically injured workers have lost their savings, been forced onto welfare rolls and into Social Security Disability plans while simultaneously being denied access to the civil courthouse and the free exercise of their 7th amendment right to a jury trial. See Wade v. Scott Recycling (Virginia); Malcomson v. Liberty Northwest (Montana); Pilkington & Lee v. State of Oklahoma (Oklahoma); Padgett v. State of Florida (reversed on procedural grounds), Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, and Castellanos v. Next Door Company (Florida).

The United States Department of Labor in coordination with OSHA have finally “discovered” that employee misclassification and wage theft are rampant, and that the cost-shifting externalization of care for injured workers is as poisonous as it is pervasive.

Perhaps most fundamentally, ProPublica, bolstered by the imprimatur and audience of NPR, has created a national conversation and awareness of the oppressed plight of injured workers with its feature The Demolition of Workers’ Compensation which exposed to the public domain the travesty and arbitrary injustice we slog through on a daily basis.

If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want. -Karl Popper

Continual, constructive self-assessment of our organizational efforts is indispensable to the accomplishment of our mission. Are we really doing the best job possible and are we succeeding to our complete potential?

Governors in the traditionally blue states of California and New York have signed away the long term financial security of millions of families of injured workers while Texas and Oklahoma have essentially jettisoned workers’ compensation benefits, allowing indifferent employers to Bail-Out of their responsibility to provide for the safety and security of working families. Further corporate front group Bail-Out initiatives are fermenting in the legislatures of Arkansas, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming.

In my view, the state workers’ compensation system is in its most dire situation in at least the last half-century. -Prof John F. Burton, Jr.

Professor Burton is clearly referencing only the perspective of the injured worker and not the immense wealth of the $85 billion insurance industry where insurance carriers now earn $6.20 in profits for every $100 of net premiums; and, private employers on average pay only 44 cents per hour for each employee to be provided with coverage.

Empirical evidence reliably demonstrates that each reduction in benefits to an injured workers’ family subsequent to “reform” has not translated into lower premiums for small business but primarily in greater profit for the self-insureds and the insurance industry. From 2007 to 2012, workers’ compensation benefits and costs per $100 of payroll were lower than at any time over the last three decades, while insurance company investment profits in 2011, 2012, and preliminarily for 2013, have topped 14% annually.

According to OSHA, workers’ compensation benefits now cover only 21% of workers’ compensation liabilities–shifting 79% of the true cost to others, including the injured workers’ family and taxpayers–while our firsthand knowledge demonstrates the inadequacy of current benefit levels and the injustice of the AMA Guides, ODG Treatment Guidelines, Primary Cause, Medical Formularies and the literal evaporation of effective vocational rehabilitation for those injured workers who have lost access to their prior occupation.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. -1 Corinthians 15:58

I believe it will be the exponential participation of you, the existing member, which fosters our mission as much as the sheer addition of new members. The existential purpose of the organization must always be vigorous and exigent advocacy, not just growth and the collection plate. We must collect accomplishments, not only numbers.

Together we can do that, but we must have an active outreach program that communicates to the public, to the media and to state legislators the value of workers’ compensation and the cost of its failure. If business can focus-group a new Doritos flavor, I am confident we can use a similar approach identifying crux “reptile” talking points, plus distilling and building upon the points raised in the ProPublica series to focus our messaging.”

Walker’s Workers’ Compensation in Wisconsin

Mark my words, Scott Walker will use his attempts to revamp and revise Wisconsin’s workers’ compensation system in his national campaign for the presidency in 2016. 

He will tout attempts at “increased efficiency” and cost cutting when, in fact, these efforts are patently false.  His recent assault on workers’ compensation prompted me to revisit a review I wrote of the Center for Justice and Democracy Study “Workers’ Compensation: A Cautionary Tale,” now a decade old. When objective observers corroborate your own instincts, it is gratifying. The study on workers’ compensation, undertaken by the Center for Justice and Democracy, concluded that since workers struck their bargain with employers early in the 20th Century, legislators and administrators have cut benefits and ushered many injured workers completely out of the system. 

Particularly insidious has been the workers’ compensation insurance carrier’s malicious, relentless campaign to advance the notion of employee fraud. In Wisconsin, the aggressive insurance media blitz prompts a response (when I say that I represent injured workers) at every social gathering, wedding, birthday, or cocktail party, about  employees “ripping off” the workers’ compensation system. This, in the face of irrefutable statistical evidence that employee fraud is infinitesimally small is a boil on the butt of the workers’ compensation system.

On the other hand, employer fraud dwarfs employee fraud. Under-representing payroll, mischaracterizing heavy-lifting laborers as clerical workers or independent contractors, and forcing injured workers to claim work injuries against their health insurance is fraud, but not as “media-sexy” as filming an alleged injured worker bowling or rock climbing.

This media barrage of employee fraud has created a milieu in which some workers, legitimately injured, do not even report injuries. For immigrants with an already tenuous status in America, the Center’s study reports that just six in ten workers hurt on the job report their injuries for fear or retaliation. The Center’s study reports alarming national trends that I see in my practice daily, resulting in denials and delays of legitimate claims. These include stricter criteria for proving a workplace injury and insurance company efforts terminating benefits at age 65 (despite increasing evidence that the retirement age is increasing). 

Lastly, ubiquitous adverse medical examiners’ reports assigning causation to some pre-existing condition corresponds to an alarming alteration in the standard for causation. Legislation requiring “substantial” or “major contributing” cause or replacing “contributing” with “prevailing” factor makes workers jump over higher hurdles to obtain compensation more than ever before. Those of us who represent injured workers will continue to try to give injured workers a boost, despite Governor Walker and Republican legislators’ efforts to the contrary.

“Independent” Medical Examinations in Workers’ Compensation (Anything but “Independent”)

“I thought their doctor Independent Medical Report was the last word on my case. I didn’t know any better.” 

This statement from a client I just met sums up the experience of many injured workers unfamiliar with the workers’ compensation process in Wisconsin (and many other states).

An insurance company or self-insured employer may request an injured worker submit to reasonable examinations by a physician, chiropractor, psychologist, dentist, podiatrist, physicians assistant, or Advanced Practice Nurse Practitioner of its choice. Wis. Stat. §102.17(1)(b). This examination is usually referred to as an Independent Medical Examination or “IME” although “adverse medical examination” more accurately reflects the process.  An Independent Medical Examination may be requested by the insurance company or self-insured employer in order to determine whether the claim is compensable and the extent of the disability or the necessity and type of treatment. 

Since only about one in ten injured workers in Wisconsin is represented by an attorney, nine out of ten unrepresented workers are not aware that the insurance company’s “IME” is actually an adverse exam by a doctor hired by and paid by the insurance company to issue his report. Although IME examiners would deny they routinely render an opinion in favor of the insurance carrier, my forty years of experience suggests just that. For many years lawyers representing injured workers have been proposing the terminology “Adverse Medical Examination” apply to give represented and unrepresented workers a more fair assessment of the process. Many IMEs make hundreds of thousands of dollars annually performing these examinations. At one of these examinations, my client overheard the IME physician (who had rented a motel room) speaking to a prospective young doctor trying to convince that doctor to perform IMEs. “This is a great practice.” He said.  “All you have to do is review the medical records, meet with the worker for a few minutes, and deny the claim. And for that you can charge $1,500.” Although my client’s testimony to this effect was barred, the underlying accuracy of his testimony is undisputable.

Beware the “Independent” Medical Examination.

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.