Work Comp Budget UPDATE: Committee Votes to Preserve Court Reporters & LIRC

Last week, the all-important Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee voted on two major issues impacting worker’s compensation in our state.   On both votes, Joint Finance removed the two Budget proposals, opting, instead, to keep the current well-run and efficient system!

As we reported in a previous post (MORE changes to Work Comp: Elimination of Court Reporters & Appeals Commission?), the Budget Bill proposed dramatic changes to Wisconsin’s top notch worker’s compensation system: (1) eliminating the use of live court reporters in litigated hearings; and (2) eliminating the independent appeals commission (Labor and Industry Review Commission, or LIRC) that reviews judge decisions.  

After public hearings on these proposals and lobbying efforts from various industry stakeholders, the Joint Finance Committee voted to preserve the current structure of the work comp system.  

LIRC: 

Indeed, the Committee rejected the Budget proposal to eliminate the LIRC–retaining the second-level appeals commission that has helped shape Wisconsin work comp law virtually since its inception in 1911.  While some vacant staff positions go away, LIRC remains in place for future appeals of work comp, unemployment, and equal rights cases.   As the LIRC website states:

LIRC is an independent Wisconsin administrative agency established to provide a fair and impartial review …  The commission’s decisions provide consistency, stability, and integrity to the programs for the employers, employees, insurers, and citizens of the State of Wisconsin.

As part of keeping LIRC, the Committee also voted for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to conduct a further study about LIRC’s interpretation of the statutes.   The upshot of the vote is for LIRC to remain for the next biennium.

Court Reporters:

The Committee also voted to keep the status quo and retained the use and funding for court reporters in litigated worker’s compensation hearings.   These stenographic court reporters are necessary to the efficient functioning of the system by ensuring decorum in the court room, properly managing exhibits, making sure parties do not talk over each other, and creating an accurate and legitimate transcript.  The initial Budget propsal involved eliminating court reporters in exchange for ill-defined audio recording equipment. Many system stakeholders (employees, employers, and carriers) raised signficant concerns about having six to seven figure case exposures decided based on unknown or questionable audio technology.  The costs of such “equipment” were also not described or budgeted.

As part of the Joint Finance Committee deliberations, the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau provided options for the use of court reporters: eliminate them, keep them, or keep them but submit the issue for further study. The Committee selected the later option, which involved keeping the current use and funding for the all-important court reporters.  

Furthermore, the Commitee requested a study to be conducted (and submitted to the Advisory Council) about the viability and use of potential audio recording equipment.  This makes good sense.  We are a first-in-the-nation work comp system.  If there is technology that exists, we need to research it and make sure it works efficiently and cost-effectively for our work comp system.  Let’s get it right!  Ultimately, we may discover (like many other states have) that live in-person court reporters still beat out any potential audio recording equipment.   

Next steps:

First, I’d like to thank the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee for their thoughtful consideration of the concerns from the work comp stakeholders. 

As to procedural issues, following the Joint Finance Committee votes last week (and further completion of the votes on other major issues), the Budget ultimately proceeds to the full legislature and then to the Governor’s desk for approval or veto.

As of right now, the Joint Finance Committee recognized what many stakeholders preach: the Wisconsin work comp system works well now, so avoid dramatic changes that could upset the historic stability. 

 

Recent Changes in Workers’ Comp Around the Country: Where Does Wisconsin Stack Up?

One of the benefits of participating in National organizations such as the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (WILG) and the National College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers is finding out how your State stacks up against the rest. Some recent cases suggest a basis for comparison.

Wisconsin was the first constitutional workers’ compensation enacted in 1911 and many other states look to Wisconsin as a progressive beacon protecting the rights of injured workers. The wattage on the beacon has been diminished by the Scott Walker administration by dividing the Workers’ Compensation Division into two administrative agencies (in an alleged move at efficiency rather than duplicity, efforts to introduce fault into a “No- Fault” system, apportioning Permanent Partial Disability to ill-defined “other factors” such as diabetes, obesity, etc. and denying workers’ compensation claims for employee misconduct.)

Some recent events around the country suggest some trends that we may see in Wisconsin. Arkansas, for example, is considering a workers’ compensation “Opt Out” bill, which would allow employers to provide less strict “alternative” medical treatment and benefits for injured workers. Similar attempts have been made in Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Wisconsin, due to its Republican controlled governorship and Senate and Assembly, was also on the “hit list” of states that might be susceptible to opt out.  As of right now (and especially given the failings of “opt out” in Oklahoma, there appears to be no Wisconsin appetite for opt out).

Other quick hitting, interesting comparisons/trends from around the country:

  • An injured undocumented worker in Kansas has been awarded workers’ compensation benefits. The woman’s employer argued she should be denied workers’ compensation because she falsified employment documents. Currently in Wisconsin, undocumented workers are allowed almost all workers’ compensation benefits (expect for vocational rehabilitation benefits since there is a federal benefits component to those claims).
  • A worker in Illinois who lost his finger in a workplace accident could not sue the workplace where he was placed by his temporary staffing firm. (Wisconsin has a similar provision protecting the “borrowing” employer that contracts with a temporary staffing agency.)
  • In Alaska, three companies working an a multi-employer construction site were cited almost a million dollars for safety violations on a power plant expansion project. Since these were “willful” violations, the penalties were quite high. These findings again emphasize the extent to which employers, rather than employees, are most likely violating safety rules. In Wisconsin an employer who violates a safety rule resulting in a work injury for an employee pays a 15% penalty on top of the employee’s workers’ compensation benefits capped at $15,000.
  • In Ohio, current and retired firefighters suffering from various cancers will be able to collect workers’ compensation benefits based upon a presumption that the cancer is caused by their work exposure. Wisconsin has a similar provision for its employees regarding heart, lung, and other cancers (so long as the firefighter is not a smoker).
  • In Montana, a bill under consideration would bar benefits if the worker knowingly fails to disclose medical conditions pertinent to their job requirements. A similar provision was recently passed in Wisconsin, requiring disclosure of any pre-existing disabilities or impairments.
  • In Colorado, a bill was just introduced allowing first responders to seek benefits for PTSD without a corresponding physical injury. Wisconsin has a similar provision but the standard of “extraordinary stress” must be met for a non-traumatic emotional or mental injury.
  • In Pennsylvania, a man disabled following Legionnaires disease, which he said was caused by exposure to contaminated water while performing his job was entitled to workers’ compensation and medical benefits.
  • Wisconsin has no specifically enumerated diseases which are automatically compensable, but where the occupational exposure causing disability is a material contributory causative factor is compensable (one of the cases handled years ago by the Domer Law firm “quantified” the component of occupational exposure at less than 5%).

Attorney Fees and Incentives in Workers’ Compensation

Abe Lincoln said it best “The matter of fees is important far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved.  Properly attended to, justice is done to both lawyer and client. . . when you lack interest in the case, the job will very likely lack the skill and diligence in the performance.”

Three states have recently addressed the issue of attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, most recently in Alabama, where an attorney fee cap of 15% on already-low benefits was found unconstitutional. It took a judge in Alabama who had been a carpenter for 15 years and then a lawyer before he took the bench, to recognize that an attorney fee cap at 15% of a $220 weekly Permanent Partial Disability benefit would not provide sufficient incentive for attorneys to be involved in workers’ compensation claims for Permanent Partial Disability in Alabama, depriving injured workers of their constitutional rights.  Judge Pat Ballard gave the legislature in Alabama four months to cure the deficiencies in the Alabama Code.

Judge Ballard found persuasive the Florida Supreme Courts reasoning in Castellanos v. Next Door Company where the Court indicated the inflexible nature of Florida attorney fee statute made that law unconstitutional.  He also agreed with the reasoning of the Utah Supreme Court, which found its workers’ compensation attorney fee caps unconstitutional.

An attorney’s determination to take a workers’ compensation case has to do with both the merits of the case and potential for recovery of attorney fees.  In Wisconsin attorneys are not paid on any portion of the medical expenses and fees are capped at 20% of the Temporary Total and Permanent Partial Disability benefits obtained for the injured worker.  In Permanent and Total Disability claims, fees are capped at ten years of benefits.  (Routinely benefits that are further offset by the injured worker’s receipt of Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits.)  As Abe Lincoln indicated long ago, “When you feel you are working for something, you are sure to do your work faithfully, and well.”  (Notes to the Ohio State Law School Graduating Class of 1858.)

Undocumented Worker Arrested after Work Comp Claim

Scary news out of Massachusetts after a worker, who was undocumented, was arrested by ICE following a worker’s compensation injury.  The article can be found here: An ICE Arrest After a Workers’ Comp Meeting Has Lawyers Questioning if it Was Retaliation.   

Employees, despite lack of documentation, still perform work for their employers.  Wisconsin law, in turn, allows worker’s compensation benefits to those undocumented workers injured on the job. 

Unfortunately, many hard working employees without documentation remain fearful or tentative about filing a worker’s compensation claim.  Stories like this increase that insecurity.

(Special thanks to WILG colleague, Ryan Benharris, for sharing this news story).

As Construction Jobs Increase, So Do Work Deaths

More work-related falls and fatalities have gone hand-in-hand with the rebounding construction jobs in the economy. The data in a recent journal showed a positive correlation with fall injuries and population density and construction activity. The full article, from a data report by the Center for Construction Research and Training, can be found here (PDF link).

While the article indicates the amount of construction industry jobs still have not reached pre-recession levels, the industry as a whole is rebounding. With that increase in construction activity is a coinciding increase in falls—and even deaths. As the article points out, “fall deaths in construction are more prevalent than in other major industries.”

Interestingly, according to the data, roofers, older workers, Hispanic workers, foreign-born workers, and self-employed workers had a higher risk of fatal falls than the average among all construction workers. 

Further safety efforts (and reinforcement) are necessary in the construction industry.  The base level nature of the job, however, means that some work injuries will occur. Workers’ compensation law helps protect those workers are their families.

Trump Lifts His Middle Finger to Injured Workers

It didn’t take long for Trump to deceive injured workers.  Despite campaign promises to help “middle class” workers,  Trump signed legislation relaxing the reporting requirements for employers when workers get hurt or ill due to their jobs.  Trump and the Republicans rolled back a rule issued by former President Barack Obama.  By ending the rule, Trump and Republicans effectively shortened the amount of time employers in dangerous industries have to keep accurate records of worker injuries – from five years to just six months.  The Republican-controlled Congress used a little-known legislative tool known as the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Obama regulation last month.  Democrats were incensed.  By signing the bill, Trump can legally prevent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from requiring a similar rule in the future.

Labor leaders and workplace safety experts warn that the rollback of the OSHA recordkeeping rule will allow unscrupulous companies to cheat on their injury data and conceal ongoing hazards from OSHA regulators.  That concealment could make it harder for OSHA to identify recurring problems at certain employers and industries.  Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser and advisor to the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (WILG), now with the National Employment Law Project, indicated “This will give license to employers to keep fraudulent records and to willfully violate the law with impunity.” 

It was only a matter of time before Trump showed his disdain for injured workers and his true allegiance to business.

Watching a Paraplegic Walk!: A Work Comp Success Story

The ReWalk Device

I just witnessed someone without the use of their legs actually walk!

A young paraplegic—supposedly bound to a wheelchair on a permanent basis—used a robotic device and actually stood upright and walked forward.  The emotions involved defy adequate description, especially for someone included on the team that made this event happened.

http://www.cbs58.com/clip/13165226/technology-and-generosity-help-local-man-to-walk-again

Click here to watch the amazing video of a paraplegic walking!

This story begins, like many work injuries, with an unexpected traumatic event.  On November 13, 2008, Matt Nevaranta was a 22-year-old working a construction job in hopes of saving enough money to continue his college career.  Those dreams were cut short when 3,000 pounds of metal forms fell on Matt, severing his spinal cord.  Matt was lucky to be alive.  However, the injury damage resulted in permanent paraplegia—an inability to use his legs and all bodily functions below his waist.   Matt presumably was constrained to a wheelchair for his life.

For many individuals, such an injury could drastically alter their outlook on life.  Matt, though, is a unique young man, who I had the privilege to get to know and represent as his worker’s compensation attorney.  Despite his condition, Matt remained positive and persevered daily.  He continued to better himself since his traumatic injury.

Matt vigorously pursued his educational opportunities.  After the initial shock and recovery from the injury, Matt reenrolled in college, beginning online.  He ultimately attended full-time at Cardinal Stritch University (in Milwaukee, WI)—actually driving himself and using his wheelchair for classes.  While many worker’s compensation insurance companies demean or question the motivation level of injured workers, Matt disproved those misplaced assumptions.  Matt graduated from Cardinal Stritch in the spring 2016 while his bachelor’s degree.  Moreover, he volunteers at the Milwaukee County Courthouse in a legal clinic, and he now has applied for law school!

Matt also forcefully pursued his physical betterment and the necessary medical equipment.  Under the Worker’s Compensation law, an injured worker receives medical treatment that is reasonably required to cure and relieve from the effects of the injury.  (Wis. Stat. Section 102.42(1)).   In Matt’s case, his worker’s compensation insurance company provided a number of medical items since the injury, including a seated wheelchair, an upright wheelchair, and home and car accommodation modifications.  None of this treatment, however, resulted in Matt walking.

ReWalk allowed Matt to walk.  ReWalk is a wearable robotic, motorized exoskeleton that allows individuals with spinal cord injuries to stand upright and actually walk.   During my representation, Matt asked if his worker’s compensation insurance company would pay for the ReWalk device.   Matt met all of the necessary criteria (as established by ReWalk) and had medical clearance to obtain the device.  More importantly, Matt’s treating spinal cord specialist and psychologist provided their medical opinions about the significant physical and psychology benefits involved in the potential use of this device.

A legal battle ensued.   In part, due to the “not-cheap” device cost, the worker’s compensation insurance company denied payment for the device.  The insurance company also hired their own “independent” medical record reviewer to question the benefits of the device.  We filed numerous medical literature studies showing the physical benefits of an upright motorized exoskeleton for paraplegics (notably, many of these devices have been used to assist returning military veterans).  We also filed medical opinions noting the potential cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, spasticity, life expectancy, and psychological benefits to the device.

The dispute over the ReWalk device went to a worker’s compensation trial.  (Note that worker’s compensation attorneys cannot receive a fee on medical treatment expenses, so this was pro bono representation).  Matt testified about his desire to use the ReWalk device.

And we won.  In a first-of-its-kind case in Wisconsin, the administrative law judge ruled that the ReWalk exoskeleton device was a reasonably required medical treatment or modality to cure and/or relieve from the effects of the work injury.  Thus, the worker’s compensation insurance company was ordered to pay for the device.

The parties struck a subsequent reasonable deal for the cost of the device to avoid further appellate litigation.  As part of this deal, we worked with the amazing crew at Marquette University’s physical therapy department (shown in the video clip in detail), who provided further training to Matt free of charge.   Matt now goes to training at Marquette, and I was privileged to watch Matt in action.

I watched a paraplegic walk!

Such a worker’s compensation success would not be possible without an entire team supporting Matt, including the efforts from Domer Law, Matt’s family, the ReWalk team (especially Craig Peters), the physicians at Froedtert/Medical College of Wisconsin (especially Drs. Merle Orr and Brad Grunert), and Marquette University physical therapists.  But, of course, none of this would occur without the personal drive to excel found in Matt Nevaranta.  Great work Matt, and I wish you nothing but continued success.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning at Work

Today’s post comes from guest author Anthony L. Lucas, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

Hundreds of individuals have been exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide while at work, including 150 employees at Middleville Tool and Die in Michigan when a hi-lo vehicle malfunctioned emitting carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide fumes, and 3 construction workers in Berkley, California who were operating a gas power washer inside a building. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a dangerous risk for workers.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and poisonous gas that results from the incomplete burning of natural gas, gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal, and other carbon-containing materials. Workers may be exposed to harmful levels of carbon monoxide in boiler rooms, warehouses, petroleum refineries, steel production, blast furnaces and coke ovens.

Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, chest pain. Within minutes and without warning, large amounts of carbon monoxide can cause loss of consciousness, suffocation, and death. If caught early, carbon monoxide poisoning can be reversed; however, there may be permanent brain and heart damage from the lack of oxygen to the organs during the exposure.

There are several measures employers can take to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning including installing effective ventilation systems that remove carbon monoxide from work areas and installing carbon monoxide monitors with audible alarms. To be safe, employees should report any situation to their employer that might cause carbon monoxide to accumulate and be alert to any ventilation problems.

If you or someone else is experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning move to an open area with fresh air and call 911. For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning, read the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Fact Sheet.