Category Archives: Workers’ Compensation

Trump Dumps Workplace Safety

When FBI Director James Comey calls President Trump a liar, the world takes notice, but when Trump lies about workplace safety, the world takes little notice.  Trump’s administration has recently provided significant “relaxation” in the government’s approach to occupational safety.  The administration recently delayed action on a rule that would require the employer to electronically report workplace injuries so they can be posted for the public.  OSHA has also put off enforcement of an Obama-era standard for silica, a mineral linked to a disabling lung disease and cancer.  I’ve dealt with many silica exposure claims in Wisconsin particularly coming from the Kohler Corporation in Kohler, Wisconsin where silica is a necessary ingredient in many bathroom fixture manufacturing processes.  The administration has also proposed changes in beryllium exposure limits.  After 40 years of development a new rule under the Obama administration was set to lower workplace exposure to beryllium a mineral linked to a lung disease estimated to kill 100 people annually.  The nation’s largest beryllium producer had agreed to back the new restrictions.  A few weeks ago as the rule was going into effect the new administration proposed changes that many expect may exempt major industries from this tougher standard. 

When asked about the Trump administration’s approach to workplace safety a White House spokesman said “The President and his administration care very much about worker safety…”  Yet another lie.  See also Under Trump, Worker Protections Are Viewed With New Skepticism

Trump’s Budget Cuts and Social Security Disability: Is “Fraud Suspicion” Underlying the Cuts?

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney echoed the mantra of many conservative Republicans who suspect that folks who are Social Security Disability recipients are fraudulent.  “If you are on disability insurance and you’re not supposed to be, you are not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work.”  This conservative trope reflects, without any evidence to substantiate it, the same kind of misinformation about employee fraud that pervades perceptions of workers’ compensation fraud. 

As I have often written about in the past, the public’s perception of injured individuals (whether collecting workers’ compensation or Social Security Disability benefits) is vastly overinflated.  The statistics indicate only about one-sixth of one percent of injured workers in Wisconsin are fraudulent.  That’s about 2 in 10,000.

The Trump administration budget proposed up to $64 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance expenditures, directly contradicting Trump’s campaign promises not to cut Social Security.  The cuts stem mostly from new program rules and processes, and requirements for mandatory participation by program applicants to move disabled beneficiaries from SSDI to work.

While returning to work is always a laudable goal (for both workers’ compensation and Social Security Disability), the last eight times that budget proposals have initiated programs to promote return to work “none of the findings reported to date show they would likely lead to a substantial reduction in case load sizes.”  http://www.researchondisability.org/docs/default-document-library/ssa-back-to-work-06-2012.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Through their contributions to Social Security, workers earn a measure of protection against disability retirement and death.  (Disability insurance protects a worker against loss of earnings due to a significant work limiting impairment, and workers earn this protection by having worked and contributed to Social Security.)  Many of my work-injured employees ultimately end up on Social Security Disability and this protection is particularly important to older Americans.  Most people receiving Social Security Disability benefits are in their 50s or early 60s and most had only unskilled or semi-skilled jobs.  Without a college degree, benefits are not significant (averaging about $1,200 per month).  However, over half of Social Security beneficiaries rely on these benefits for 75% or more of their total income. 

The proposed budget cuts to Social Security are another slap in the face to injured workers.

Opioid Task Force, Recent Studies, and CDC Opioid Recommendations

Today’s post comes from guest author Kristina Brown Thompson, from The Jernigan Law Firm, in North Carolina.

Wisconsin’s Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council is also looking at the issue of opioid use.

The North Carolina Industrial Commission recently joined many other states (i.e. Massachusetts) in tackling the issue of opioids in the workers’ compensation cases by creating a Workers’ Compensation Opioid Task Force. The goal of the task force is to “study and recommend solutions for the problems arising from the intersection of the opioid epidemic and related issues in workers’ compensation claims.” According to the Chair, “[o]pioid misuse and addiction are a major public health crisis in this state.” 

As of last June, a study by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) noted “noticeable decreases in the amount of opioids prescribed per workers’ compensation claim.” From 2012 – 2014, “the amount of opioids received by injured workers decreased.” In particular, there were “significant reductions in the range of 20 to 31 percent” in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas. 

Additionally last March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new recommendations for prescribing opioid medications for chronic pain “in response to an epidemic of prescription opioid overdose, which CDC says has been fueled by a quadrupling of sales of opioids since 1999.” 

Currently, the CDC’s recommendations for prescribing opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer, palliative, and end-of-life care will likely follow these steps:

1.  Non-medication therapy / non-opioid will be preferred for chronic pain.

2.  Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals and consider how therapy will be discontinued if benefits do not outweigh risks.

3.  Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy. 

Cutting Corners Costs Lives: Non-Union Work Sites Twice As Dangerous As Union Sites

This large inflatable rat is a common sight at protests of non-union worksites in New York City.

Today’s post comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

As an attorney who practices in the metropolitan area, I often find myself traveling into New York City. I am amazed at the amount of construction that I see; the cityscape is changing and evolving rapidly. This construction boom means more business, a steady paycheck for workers, and more money for the city and state. Unfortunately, with the rise in construction also comes a rise in safety violations, injuries, and fatalities.

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) recently issued a report called Deadly Skyline regarding construction fatalities in New York State. A summary of their findings notes that from 2006 through the end of 2015, 464 construction workers died while on the job, with falls as the leading cause of death. When a fatality occurred, safety violations were inherent in more than 90 percent of the sites inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The report pointed out that non-union work sites had twice the safety violations of union sites, and in 2015, 74 percent of the fatalities occurred on non-union projects with the majority of the fatalities involving Latinos.       

It is painfully obvious that shortcuts and cost-saving measures result in injury and death. Many employers use misclassification as a means to save money. Misclassification occurs when an employee is labeled as an “independent contractor” so that a business owner doesn’t need to pay Workers’ Compensation insurance, Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment taxes. Some even resort to paying employees off the books as well in an effort to save money. This may not seem troublesome until you realize that this is a one-sided deal that really only benefits the employer. According to the NYCOSH report, misclassification of workers allows an employer to skirt the safe workplace requirement as OSHA does not cover independent contractors.

Employers must provide Workers’ Compensation insurance for their employees, and typically must notify their Workers’ Comp carrier as to the number of employees they have and the type of work they do. A risk analysis is performed and then employers are assigned a premium to pay in order to cover their workers in case of injuries. If injuries occur, premiums may be increased accordingly. Obviously employers in high-risk businesses must pay more for their premiums than those with employees involved in low-risk jobs. As injuries on misclassified workers do not add to an employer’s bottom line, there is less incentive to provide safety measures if it cuts into profits.

To make construction sites safe, NYCOSH recommends adequate education and training as well as legislation to punish those whose willful negligence causes a death. They also recommend passage of the NYS Elevator Safety bill that requires the licensing of persons engaged in the design, construction, operation, inspection, maintenance, alteration, and repair of elevators. It would also preserve Section 240 of the New York Labor Law, commonly referred to as the “scaffold law,” which governs the use of scaffolding and other devices for the use of employees. Weakening the Scaffold Law would shift safety responsibility from owners and general contractors who control the site, to workers who do not control the site and are in a subordinate position.

It is a true tragedy when someone is maimed or killed in an accident that could have been prevented. Not every employer engages in these tactics, and most workplaces are generally safe spaces for workers. However, even one death is too many. 

 

 

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.

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.)

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.

Why Immigration Policy Changes Will Probably Impact Workers Compensation

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore in Nebraska. Very interesting read for potential impact on Wisconsin workers and employers.

In theory, the changes to immigration policy proposed by President Trump shouldn’t impact workers compensation in Nebraska. Workers compensation laws are state laws and Nebraska, like most states, awards workers compensation benefits regardless of immigration status.

But theory is one things and reality is another.

Mike Elk of Payday Report recently ran an article detailing that workplace deaths among Latinos were the highest in 2015 than they had been since 2007. This spike was attributed in part to aggressive immigration enforcement by the Obama administration which immigrant advocates believed made workers afraid to speak out about working conditions over fear of deportation.

During the Obama administration tougher immigration policies were at least coupled with tougher and even innovative workplace safety enforcement by OSHA. In the Trump era, workplace safety enforcement is expected to be curtailed and new OSHA rules are poised to be rolled back.

Immigration and workers compensation is often thought of in the context of Mexicans and central Americans working in industries like meatpacking and construction. This is a misconception, the meatpacking industry in Nebraska and elsewhere employs an uncounted but significant number of Somali workers. Somalis are one of seven nationalities banned from entering the United States under President Trump’s order. Ironically Somalis were recruited heavily into meatpacking work after raids during the Bush administration lead to the deportation of Latino meatpacking workers. Somalis had refugee status so there were few questions about their immigration status or eligibility to work legally. Under the new executive order, their immigration status is less secure and they may be less likely to speak out about working conditions.

A smaller but growing number of Cubans are coming to Nebraska for meatpacking work as well. Like Somalis, Cubans are deemed to be refugees so their ability to work lawfully is not a question for employers. However in the waning days of Obama administration, President Obama ended automatic refugee status for Cubans in an effort to normalize relationship with the Castro regime. There was little public outcry over this order like there was for the so-called Muslim Ban. However because of an executive order, Cuban nationals working in Nebraska may be less inclined to speak out about working conditions or claim workers compensation benefits due to newfound uncertainty over their immigration status.