Tag Archives: Benefits

The Road Ahead: Adjusting To Life After An Injury

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

As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 27 years, I see first hand what an injury can do to workers and their families. A number of years ago I represented an injured electrician, who as a result of an overextension injury sustained on the job, ended up having multiple surgeries. Almost immediately, this once athletic, high wage earner with a beautiful family and comfortable lifestyle saw an abrupt end to the life he knew.

My client faced a debilitating injury. He was no longer able to travel, his personal relationships suffered, and his once strong physique withered away. His financial situation was dire and he was unable to afford his home. Beside the extreme physical impairment, he ended up being treated for major depression. Both the insurance carrier’s medical providers, as well as the claimant’s treating doctors in this particular case, agreed that the claimant was totally disabled or incapable of performing any meaningful work activity – a standard not easy to meet.

Many of those injured on the job may not be able to return to their prior employment. Yet, according to the law, that does not mean they are totally disabled from any employment. If they are able to perform any work activity at all then they may be considered partially disabled. The amount of weekly payments an injured person receives and the length of time an injured worker receives these benefits is dependent upon a number of factors including degree of disability and loss of earning capacity. A partial disability can be considered mild, moderate, or marked.  These degrees are further broken down into when an injury is deemed permanent to a percentage loss of earning capacity. In some cases the difference of one percent loss of earning capacity can mean the difference of a full year of additional benefits. As you can imagine, much of my practice is consumed with litigation regarding the degree of disability and the loss of earning capacity.

The road for those who are partially disabled is not an easy one. Despite the Workers’ Compensation Board’s determination that an injured person has an ability to perform some work activity, it does not always translate into being able to obtain employment. In the case of serious injuries resulting in extensive lost time, the employer may have had to fill the position or the employer may not be able to accommodate the physical limitations. This puts injured workers in a position of having to look for alternate employment that they may not be trained for. The Board recommends a number of resources available to those seeking assistance, including one-stop career centers, as well as participating in vocational rehabilitation programs and continuing education such as SUNY Educational Opportunity centers adult career and continuing education. For more information go to www.wcb.ny.gov/labor-market-attachment

Many workers who are unable to obtain employment because of their injuries apply for Social Security Disability benefits. The standard for Social Security disability is different than Workers’ Compensation and relies more on the age and ability of the injured person to be retrained and to obtain relevant future employment. Social Security Disability benefits are payable for any illness or injury and do not have to be work related. All medical conditions are considered by the federal judge when making a determination as to eligibility, including physical or emotional impairments.

While an injury on the job can be life altering, there are resources available. You may never be able to return to your pre-injury status, but knowing your options allows you the ability to have some control over your future.

 

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.

The Cancer Presumption in Workers’ Compensation

What is a legal presumption? 

Can a legal presumption be rebutted by sufficient contrary evidence?

Wisconsin workers’ compensation law contains many presumptions. For example, for firefighters, it is presumed that if a firefighter has cancer, the cancer is employment-related. The Statute applies to any State, County, or Municipal firefighter who has worked for ten years with at least two-thirds of the working hours as a firefighter who has cancer of the skin, breast, central nervous system, or lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary, skeletal, oral, or reproductive systems. For that firefighter whose disability or death is caused by cancer, the cancer diagnosis is presumptive evidence that the cancer was caused by employment. However, no presumption exists for firefighters who smoke cigarettes or use tobacco products for claims after January 2001. (Wis. Stat. §891.455 Presumption of Employment Connected Disease: Cancer)

Other presumptions in Wisconsin law include a presumption that a youthful worker (under age 27) is presumed to be able to earn the maximum wage rate by the time he reaches age 27, for purposes of Permanent Partial Disability, disfigurement, or death. For example, a McDonalds burger-flipper earning $10 per hour who has a severe burn is presumed (instead of the $200 or $300 he actually earns per week) to be earning $1,400 per week under the Youthful Age Presumption. Evidence of the worker’s likely inability to earn the maximum wage (due to cognitive or academic deficiency or similar lower earning work history) can be used to rebut the presumption and therefore limit the maximum Permanent Partial Disability or disfigurement award.

In a recent cancer case, the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation board found a firefighter cannot receive workers’ compensation benefits for prostate cancer because he failed to show his cancer was work-related despite a statutory presumption for firefighters. The firefighter began working for the City of Philadelphia in the 1970s and retired in 2006 after a diagnosis of prostate cancer. He filed a workers’ compensation claim saying his cancer stemmed from carcinogens he was exposed to while working as a firefighter, such as diesel fumes from fire trucks, second hand tobacco smoke from co-workers, and smoke from burning debris he encountered while fighting fires. Note he also acknowledged he smoked an average of a half pack of cigarettes daily since the 1960s. His doctor’s testimony that his carcinogen exposure caused the prostate cancer was rebutted by the City’s physician indicating that prostate cancer is typically more of a “disease of aging than it is of external influence.” The Judge, in denying the claim, noted “Any elevated risks for prostate cancer among firefighters might also be explained by other factors, such as detection bias, ethnicity and geography.”

The cancer presumption in Wisconsin (for non-smoking firefighters) would be more difficult to rebut, but factors such as family history may prove the “other evidence” necessary to rebut the presumption.

Getting Workers’ Comp and Social Security Disability–Is it Really “Double-Dipping?”

double dippingAn injured worker’s receipt of Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits can produce an offset from workers’ compensation (WC) payments.  A workers’ compensation recipient who is also collecting SSD cannot receive, in combined benefits, more than 80% of his average current earnings (ACE).  Wisconsin is one of nine “Reverse Offset” states whereby any offsets are taken on WC benefits rather than Social Security benefits.  Under Wisconsin statutes, for each dollar that the total monthly workers’ compensation benefits (excluding attorney fees and costs) plus the monthly benefits payable under the Social Security Act for disability exceed 80% of the employee’s ACE as determined by Social Security, the workers’ compensation benefits shall be reduced by the same amount, so that the total benefits payable do not exceed 80% of the employee’s ACE.

In most states, under Social Security law, a recipient’s SSD benefits are reduced when the total of the recipient’s disability payments plus workers’ compensation (WC) benefits exceed 80% of the ACE.  The reduction is taken against the recipient’s monthly SSD, not WC. In Wisconsin, however, just the reverse is true and the workers’ compensation insurance carrier’s liability is reduced.

In Wisconsin, the maximum age for ending the Social Security offset has been 65 since the offset went into effect in 1980.  However, since Congress amended the Social Security Act in 2013 by the incredibly-titled “Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act,” the amendment extends the workers’ compensation Social Security offset to the full retirement age (essentially age 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954, and age 67 for those born after 1960).  The revised law provides that the offset continues until an employee attains full retirement age.  The way this works out practically, for example, for a worker with a $600 monthly Average Weekly Wage ($400 in Temporary Total Disability), or about $30,000 in average current earnings (ACE), 80% ACE would be $24,000 per year or $2,000 per month.  If SSD pays $900 per month, WC would be limited to the 80% ACE figure ($2,000) so the WC carrier liability would be limited to $1,100 instead of its $1,720 ($400 TTD rate x 4.3) monthly liability absent the SSD.

The purposes of the two systems—SSD and WC—differ substantially. WC applies the principle that, irrespective of fault, projected costs of injuries can be secured in advance through insurance. Eligibility for SSD benefits requires an employee to build equity in the program through earning income credits.  The employer has paid a premium for the worker’s injury not based on any offset, and the employee has paid into Social Security for the entirety of his work life.  The rationale for the “offset” is loosely based on a “double dipping” assessment, much the same as the “Moral Hazard” rationale for not providing a full pay check to workers who are injured (in order to reduce the incentive to remain off work).

Wisconsin experimented historically with the percentage of Permanent Partial Disability payable for Temporary Total Disability (from 70% to the current 66.66%), based on the notion that the worker should be no better off disabled than if he were working, the 33% diminution assessed as an amount relatively close to his taxation rate.  This rationale does not, of course, hold for those workers who exceed the maximum (currently $1,380) wage rate.  The “Moral Hazard” rationale for reduction of benefits is based on the theory that an injured worker should not be “better off”  because of his injury.  In over 40 years’ representing injured workers, I’ve yet to see a worker actually better off because of his work injury.

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.

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.”

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.

Facebook Postings Hurt Workers’ Compensation Claims

While Facebook is extremely popular and used by over a billion people every day, no Facebook posting has ever helped an injured worker in a workers’ compensation claim. On the contrary, use of a Facebook page poses real dangers for injured workers pursuing workers’ compensation benefits.

Since Facebook is a public site, anything posted can be used by respondent insurance companies in claims denial. Even the most benign postings (birthday parties, family gatherings, etc.) can pose problems. For example, a grandparent lifting a 30 pound grandchild when doctors have imposed a 10 pound lifting limit could damage a claim. Additionally, nothing prevents an Administrative Law Judge from looking at a Facebook page.  Even innocent posts may be subject to misinterpretation. A picture of the worker riding a motorcycle or fishing taken prior to the injury but posted afterward could place the seed of doubt in an ALJ’s mind that the worker is not as limited as he claims. The best advice is to be extremely careful about what is posted because “friends” are not the only one who can access your Facebook page.

File a Workers’ Comp Claim – Get Fired

A new study from the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) indicates trust or mistrust in the work relationship plays a significant role in the outcome of a workers’ compensation claim.  In a recent benchmark study in Iowa by WCRI, almost four out of ten workers interviewed reported they were concerned they would be fired or laid off after they were injured. 

The Iowa study reflects similar results in Wisconsin and other benchmark states.  All workers who were interviewed received workers’ comp benefits and experienced more than a week of lost work time.  Additional findings noted two-thirds of the injured Iowa workers had other health conditions (having smoked for ten years or had diabetes or lung conditions).  Obviously those with significant pre-existing conditions had predictably worse results.