Back In The game Or Back To Work Too Soon?

Senator Dan Quick has introduced employee-friendly legislation

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

Last weekend’s Big 10 Conference football championship game between Ohio State and Wisconsin contained some off-the-field controversy when former Wisconsin Badger and current Cleveland Browns player, Joe Thomas, criticized the fact that Ohio State starting quarterback J.T. Barrett was playing in the game six days after arthroscopic knee surgery.

While Barrett lead the Buckeyes to victory with 211 passing yards and 60 rushing yards, Thomas argued that college players should have the option of a second opinion when it comes to major surgeries like players do in the NFL. Thomas argued that team doctors are overly influenced by coaches who want players to return to action as soon as possible and that college players are over eager to return to the field.

A similar issue will be debated in Nebraska’s legislature next month. Senator Dan Quick of Grand Island has a bill on the floor that would require an employer to pay for a second opinion if an employee disputes a finding from a doctor paid for by the employer. Quick’s bill was inspired by his experience of being sent back to work prematurely by a doctor chosen by his employer’s workers compensation insurer.

Quick is an electrician by trade and is one of the few blue-collar workers who serves in the Nebraska Legislature. Another blue-collar worker, Lee Carter, was recently elected to the legislature in Virginia. Like Quick, Carter had a bad experience after a work injury. Carter had his hours reduced after his accident and was unable to find a lawyer because of confusion over which state had jurisdiction over his work injury.

Blue collar workers running for office may be a trend as iron worker Randy Bryce is running for Congress against House Speaker Paul Ryan and Wisconsin Firefighter’s union president Mahlon Mitchell is running for Governor of Wisconsin. I am encouraged that people like Dan Quick and Lee Carter have taken their bad experiences after work injuries and have gone into politics to directly address the problems they  faced first hand and make sure other workers will have better experiences if they get hurt on the job.

What Do You Mean, I Can’t Sue My Employer?

OSHA find the owner of the Didion Milling Plant in connection with an explosion that killed 2 workers and injured several more.

Today’s post comes from guest author Thomas Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

I sat down this morning with a television reporter interviewing me about a horrific explosion in Wisconsin that killed 5 workers and injured many more.  The explosion on May 31, 2017 at the Didion Ethanol Plant in Cambria, Wisconsin occurred when corn dust exploded, destroying the entire plant.  OSHA hit the company with a $1.8 million fine, calling it a preventable explosion.

The reporter’s question to me was “Why can’t the employees sue their employer?”  The answer goes back over 100 years in Wisconsin to the “Grand Bargain” that was struck between management and labor.  Sometimes referred to as the “great tradeoff,” employees traded away their right to sue their employer, even for egregious safety violations, in return for wage loss and medical benefits to be paid regardless of fault.  The goal was to relieve the injured employee from the burden of paying for medical care and replace lost wages.  At the turn of the 20th Century, Wisconsin workplaces were often dangerous places, and employers had little incentive to make them safer.  Injured workers could rarely afford the kind of legal cost for recovery efforts in court and employers benefitted by use of contributory negligence, assumption of risk and co-employee negligence as bars to an employee’s recovery in court.

The administrative system that was established by worker’s compensation was created to provide a direct remedy to the employer and to limit (by Exclusive Remedy) litigation against the employer.  The system was supposed to insure a method of providing benefits to an injured employee during the period of disability and to ensure the employees were not reduced to poverty because of injuries.

Speed, dependability, and financial assistance were components of the new system, and by making employers responsible for injury, the law offered strong incentives to make workplaces safer.  Unfortunately, that has not occurred.  The latest statistics indicate that over 100 people die annually in Wisconsin and over 5,000 annually across the nation.

Revealing to a grieving widow that the remedy available is limited to four times the deceased worker’s annual income is precious little consolation for loss of a spouse’s life and lifetime income.

Workplace Safety De-Regulation Continues

Today’s post comes from guest author Charlie Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

The con continues.  Many American workers were conned into initially voting for Donald Trump, and that con game continues with the Trump Administration and its views on worker safety.  Campaign promises of benefitting the US worker ring hollow with each and every anti-worker de-regulation push.

Recent reports reveal the administration is removing or delaying OSHA protective regulatory standards on numerous fronts.  (Updated OSHA agenda reflects Trump administration focus on de-regulation).   The administration previously acted against improved employer recordkeeping for workplace injuries and illnesses. Now, the anti-worker protection agenda continues with the administration effectively pulling important items from the regulatory agenda.  

From the above-linked report, some of the important issues “removed” from the OSHA regulatory agenda are: Preventing Backover Injuries and Fatalities; Noise in Construction; Bloodborne Pathogens; and Combustible Dust. 

Failure to have adequate regulations–and penalties–has real world consequences.  Just look at what happened in Cambria, Wisconsin in May 2017 when a corn mill exploded and workers died from what appears to be Combustible Dust.  This was and continues to be a devastating workplace accident for a smaller town in Wisconsin.  Sadly, a Journal Sentinel story indicated:

A review of online OSHA records shows the plant was cited in January 2011 for exposing its workers to dust explosion hazards. The records state that plant filters lacked an explosion protective system.

The agency ordered the mill to correct the problem by April 2011. The records show Didion paid a $3,465 fine and the case was closed in September 2013.

Such minimal OSHA fines or penalties likely provided corresponding minimal incentives to improve safety standards or hazardous practices.  The limited incentives are bolstered by relatively toothless “employer safety violation” penalty in a Wisconsin worker’s compenstion claim, which is capped at a maximum of $15,000.  

Further “anti-regulation” pushes likely increase the lack of safety incentives for employers. Those anti-regulation efforts are alive in Wisconsin and on the federal stage–especially in the Trump agenda.

Workers should be aware that anti-regulation may equal anti-worker.   And anti-safety.

 

Medicaid Cuts Will Cause More Nursing Injuries

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

While efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid appear to have stalled for now, any successful effort to cut Medicaid will adversely impact workplace safety for nurses and nurse’s aides.

Studies by the National Institutes of Health show that reductions in Medicaid funding leads to less staffing at long term care facilities and that lower staffing leads to more injuries for nursing employees. Since most nurses and nurse’s aides are covered under state-based workers compensation laws the additional costs of work injuries from Medicaid cuts may not be fully accounted for on a federal level.

At least in Nebraska nursing employees have some ways to protect themselves when advocating for safer working conditions even if they do not belong to a union.

Nebraska has a whistleblower law that applies specifically to health care workers, including nurses. The benefit of this act is that it allows employees to recover for damages similar to what they could collect under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act, including front pay and possibly attorney fees, without having to exhaust administrative remedies. Additionally, health care workers would have four years to bring a suit under the health care whistleblowers law, rather than the much shorter and complicated statute of limitations under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act.

Nebraska has a broad general whistleblower law that allows employees to oppose unlawful conduct by their employers. Nebraska law requires that nursing homes to be adequately staffed. Federal law also requires that employers provide a workplace to be free of recognizable hazard. Inadequate staffing would certainly be deemed be a recognizable hazard in a nursing home. The only drawback to Nebraska’s whistleblower law is the short and potentially uncertain statute of limitations.

Nebraska law would also allow nurses reporting inadequate staffing to be protected from retaliation under a public policy claim that also has a four year statute of limitations.

As Construction Jobs Increase, So Do Work Deaths

Today’s post comes from guest author Charlie Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

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.

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

Today’s post comes from guest author Thomas Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

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%).

A More Dangerous And Demanding Future For Retail Employees?

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

Walmart announced last week that it started a pilot program where store employees will deliver packages from stores on their way home from work. If this practice is adopted company wide and adopted by the retail industry as a whole, it will change the nature of retail employment.

As written about on this blog before, delivery and warehousing jobs tend to have more physical injures than traditional retail clerk jobs. If employee delivery becomes a regular part of retail employment, then retail jobs should become more hazardous. One positive part about Walmart using employees to make deliveries would be the fact that those employees should be covered by workers’ compensation if they are injured while delivering packages. Fed Ex has faced legal challenges for misclassifying their delivery drivers as independent contractors. Uber, who has also faced challenges on how they classify their drivers, also has a package delivery service.

Delivery jobs tend to be more physically demanding than retail clerk jobs and can also subject employees to DOT requirements. If package delivery becomes an expected part of retail employment, retail jobs will have more physical and occupational requirements. This could mean in the future that retail jobs may not be a fallback option for workers from other physically demanding occupations who become unable to do their old jobs because of injuries or health problems.

The rise of online shopping has greatly reduced the number of stores of traditional retailers. This decline in so-called “big box” stores lead to a parallel reduction in retail employment. Jamelle Bouie pointed out in Slate that this collapse in retail employment has harmed women, people of color and urbanites who tend to work in retail. Bouie points out, I think correctly, that retail employees tend to be disrespected in part because of gender and race. Bouie also states the decline in retail employment has received much less attention than declines in employment in other sectors like manufacturing and mining that tend to employ more white males.

In contrast to traditional retail workers, delivery drivers tend to be paid better. UPS delivery drivers seem to enjoy a certain level of prestige, respect and even a mystique within the workforce. (11) Maybe some of that respect will rub-off on retail workers if they become delivery employees.  On the flip slide, competition from largely non-unionized and lower-paid retail workers may cut into pay and benefits that delivery drivers and their unions have fought for over the years.

Seeking Balance and Value – Workers’ Comp Expenses and Benefits

Today’s post comes from guest author Kit Case, from Causey Wright.

Employer Rate Expenses and Injured Worker Compensation, by State

The Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services issues their Workers’ Compensation Premium Rate Ranking Summary annually. In it, the Department quantifies the cost of workers’ compensation premiums in each state and ranks the states numerically based on the cost to employers for providing workers’ compensation benefits to the workforce.

The Oregon study is focused on the dollar-cost of coverage from the viewpoint of employers.  But, the employer is only one of the parties involved in the workers’ compensation world.  There are also medical professionals, vocational counselors, and the injured workers.  I was interested in how the ranked states would stack up from the injured worker’s perspective, so I looked up the maximum weekly benefit rates for each state, based on information maintained by the Social Security Administration – and made a comparison of my own. 

Understand that workers’ compensation claims have many facets that go beyond weekly benefit rates, and that every state has their own system with it’s own set of benefits and criteria for receiving those benefits.  This includes variations across the states that affect allowance of claims, compensability of claims, allowance of medical treatment and procedures, provision of vocational retraining benefits, conclusions about ability to return to work or placement on total disability pensions, caps on weeks of compensation paid and a variety of compensation structures for final settlements or awards for permanent partial disability.

My comparison is only of two data points: the ranking of cost per the Oregon study and each state’s maximum compensation rate paid to injured workers. It does not factor in the cost of living or average salaries in each state. It does not begin to touch on the issue of the quality of medical care available to workers in each state nor on claim outcomes, restoration of physical function or loss of wage-earning capacity for injured workers. It is a simplistic look at a complicated dataset.

To see an interactive map charting the results, click here.

To see my tally of the maximum compensation rates against the rankings of employer expense, click here.

In the most-recent Oregon summary, issued in October 2016, Washington State ranks 15th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, with a cost rate of 107% of the median.  The highest-cost state was California, at 176% of the median cost. The lowest was North Dakota, ranked at 51st with 48% of the median expense rate. But, the highest-cost states do not have the highest level of benefits paid to injured workers.

In my non-scientific analysis, Washington State ranked 5th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of maximum weekly compensation rates, at $1,313.06 per week or $5,689.93 as a monthly amount. The state with the highest maximum weekly rate was Iowa at $1,688.00 per week or $7,314.67 monthly. At the bottom of the list was Mississippi with a weekly rate of $468.63 or $2030.73 per month.

The most expensive state, California per the Oregon study, came in at #14 in monetary benefits to workers at a maximum of $1,128.43 per week or $4,889.86 per month. The least expensive state, North Dakota, came in at #10 based on maximum weekly compensation of $1,214.00 or $5,260.67 per month.

It is important for each state’s workers’ compensation system to be run efficiently, fairly, and provide the most “bang for the buck” to improve claim outcomes. For injured workers, on a personal scale, this means quick decisions on medical treatment authorizations to allow a speedy and full recovery after an injury. It also means providing meaningful vocational services when a full recovery is not possible to limit the decrease in earning capacity. On a bigger scale, injured workers need to know that quality medical care is available to them. This requires that doctors receive the payment and support they need to efficiently be able to treat injured workers without drowning in red tape and delays.

A well-run system can result in better outcomes for injured workers and lower costs to employers, all the while avoiding doctor flight. It would appear from the numbers that some states are doing better than others at achieving this goal with several that have lower employer costs and higher maximum weekly benefits to injured workers. This is a goal we can all work towards.

Photo credit: jimmiehomeschoolmom via Foter.com / CC BY