All posts by Paul J. McAndrew, Jr.

Portability, The Gig Economy And Workers Compensation

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

Changing employment laws to encourage so-called “portable benefits” is an idea that goes hand in hand with finding new ways to classify gig economy workers. These proposals are being pushed in a  growing number of states. These proposals also enjoy support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. These proposals could also radically alter workers’ compensation in the United States.

The idea of third classification of worker between employee and independent contractor is to give so-called “gig economy” workers some protections and benefits without employers having to bear the full costs of employment – including unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance. Sometimes this third class of workers is described as “dependent contractors.

Portable benefits are usually discussed in the context of contractors because traditionally benefits such as unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance have been provided by employers. So-called portable benefits, are detached from employers. The Affordable Care Act increased portability of health insurance benefits through the use of exchanges Portability of health insurance was touted as a way to help create new businesses because potential entrepreneurs were not tied to an employer for health insurance.

The idea of portable benefits and a new classification for gig employers is also touted as a way to reduce litigation against companies such as Uber for how they classify employees. But former National Labor Relations Board member Craig Becker pointed out that creating a new class of workers may actually create more litigation when employers try to re-classify employee as dependent contractors. Becker and others pointed out that this is what happened in Italy when Italy created a third class of worker that was neither employee nor independent contractor.

Becker and others point out that the drive to create a new class of workers is being driven by tech companies such as Uber as a way of reducing labor costs. The real risks of creating a new classification of workers is shared even by some who promote the sharing or gig economy. Gene Zaino, founder and CEO of MBO Partners, a firm that provides services to independent workers, stated that any new classification of independent workers should only include workers who earn more than $50 per hour. Under such a scheme lower-paid workers would still retain the benefits and protections of the employment relationship.

Though states are pondering portability and dependent contractor laws, there is a push for federal legislation so that laws can remain uniform across the country. Any federal push for portable benefits for so-called independent workers would clash with state-based workers’ compensation laws. Workers’ compensation is traditionally a state law concern because when workers’ compensation laws were enacted the power of the federal government to implement laws regarding workplace safety were limited. During the New Deal-era, that interpretation of the interstate commerce clause changed to allow broad regulation of the workplace.

Advocates for state-based workers’ compensation laws likely have little constitutional grounds to overturn any federal legislation that would substitute “portable benefits” for so-called “independent workers” for state-based workers’ compensation benefits. Some critics who argue, correctly, that many state-based laws inadequately compensate injured workers could also be open to or even welcome a federal substitute for  insufficient state workers’ compensation laws.

Protecting Yourself At Work: What To Do If There Is An Active Shooter

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

As an attorney who has been practicing before the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board representing injured workers for more than 27 years, I am drawn to organizations that assist workers. That’s why I am a member of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH), whose mission notes that every worker has the human right to a safe and healthy workplace and that workplaces injuries are often preventable. As a member, I receive many emails with various announcements regarding workplace safety, as well as statistics of injuries and deaths that occur on the job, many of which are preventable.

It is a sign of the times that on May 23, 2017, I received an email about educating workers on how to best respond in case of an active shooter. NYCOSH, along with the New York City Central Labor Council (NYCCLC), was sponsoring the event that was meant to educate participants on what actions to take to prevent and prepare for potential incidents, including what to do when an active shooter enters the workplace. Many of the cases that make front page news are mass shootings or those in the name of terrorism. Few of us can forget the Islamic extremist, who along with his wife fatally shot 14 of his co-workers at a Christmas party. Many of us go about our workday never anticipating a disgruntled employee, a client harboring a grudge, a terrorist, or a coworker intent on robbery, who may come to our workplaces with murder on their minds. When NYCOSH set out to sponsor their recent event trying to deal with a growing problem in this country, there was no way of knowing that workplace shootings would be in the national headlines three times in just two weeks. 

Last week we were shocked and appalled by the images of Republican Senators and their colleagues being shot at by a deranged person not happy with current politics. While many of our elected officials have heavy security when they are at work in the Capital’s office buildings, these members were on a ballfield early in the morning practicing for a charity baseball game taking place the next day. Despite the close proximity of the Capitol Police there to protect Steve Scalise, the current United States House of Representatives Majority Whip, five people were shot. Thankfully the sole fatality was the shooter himself.

In Orlando in early June, a disgruntled ex-employee systematically shot and killed five coworkers and then himself. A week later, a UPS employee in San Francisco walked into a UPS facility and killed three coworkers before killing himself.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2015 there were 354 homicides by shooting at the workplace. There were 307 in 2014, 322 in 2013, 381 in 2012, and 365 in 2011. Based on these statistics, it is clear that this is not an issue going away anytime soon. These are scary times and we all need to prepare for this new normal. 

While I was not able to attend the NYCOSH event, I did go to the website for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which offered these suggestions for responding when an active shooter is in your area.

  • Evacuate if you can.
  • Run as fast as you can and leave everything behind.
  • Just get out if possible.
  • If there is no accessible escape route, then hide somewhere and lock and blockade the door and silence any noise such as a radio or cell phone.
  • Lastly, if your life is in imminent danger, take action and try to incapacitate the shooter.
  • Throw things.
  • Use anything as a weapon.
  • Don’t go down without a fight.

It’s unfortunate that we even have to talk about protecting ourselves from active shooters. But in today’s day and age, we can never be too careful. As a mother, I worry for the safety of my children when they walk out the door as I’m sure many of you do as well. As a lawyer, I worry about the safety of workers every day on the job who are continually dealing with workplace injuries that could have been prevented.

 

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.

Expanded Small Farm Internship Program Sows Seeds for Future Growers

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

An effort to bring small farms in Washington State together with people who want to learn farming is expanding to 20 counties across the state.

The Farm Internship Project, overseen by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, began in 2010 as a pilot project. Four years later, it grew to 16 counties. A new law that takes effect this week (July 23) adds Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, and Walla Walla counties and extends the project to Dec. 31, 2019.

Gov. Jay Inslee highlighted the need to educate a new generation of farmers when he signed HB 1906 that expanded the effort.

“Farm internships are great ways for farmers to mentor young people with an interest in this field — and keep food on our tables,” said Gov. Inslee.

A farmer who lobbied for the bill highlighted the need for more farmers.

“It’s important for more farms to reap the benefits of the project,” said Julie Gullett, of Seedpod Farm in Centralia. “We are losing the knowledge of elder farmers as they retire, and fewer folks are entering farming.”

Farms with annual sales of less than $250,000 per year may participate in the project. The benefits for farmers include receiving help from up to three interns per year; the interns being exempt from wage requirements and employment security; knowing and ensuring that vital knowledge is being passed on to a new generation of farmers.

“We want to ensure a quality learning experience for participants while making it easy for farms to take part,” said Kelly Kane, who manages the project for L&I. “We’re encouraged with this first-in-the-nation effort’s expansion across the state.”

Prior to the internship project, small farms exchanged informal on-farm education for a stipend or volunteer labor. This put both farms and workers at risk because of the lack of insurance to protect against injury. Under the project, interns have workers’ compensation protection along with the opportunity for a valuable education and hands-on experience in farming activities.

Application and curriculum resources are available from L&I, which certifies participating farms, at www.Lni.wa.gov/FarmInternProject. Contact Kane at 1-800-509-8847 or kelly.kane@lni.wa.gov for more information.

 

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions 

 

Alabama Court Strikes Down Anti-Worker Provisions Of State Workers’ Compensation Law

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

An Alabama trial-court level judge ruled the Alabama Workers Compensation Act was unconstitutional in a recent decision. Though the decision isn’t binding on a state level and it was recently stayed or delayed indefinitely, it is an important and interesting decision for many reasons.

The Alabama workers’ compensation statute was found to be unconstitutional because it capped benefits at $220 per week for permanent injuries and it limited attorney fees for plaintiff attorneys to 15 percent. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Pat Ballard found that Alabama’s cap on permanent damages violated equal protection of the laws because it created two classes of workers without any rational basis because some workers were fairly compensated for permanent disability while others were not. Ballard also found that the attorney fee cap violated constitutional due process rights.

Ballard’s reasoning about equal protection and due process mirror recent state supreme court decisions in Oklahoma and Florida striking down anti-worker reforms to the workers’ compensation laws in those states. Florida struck down attorney fee caps for plaintiff’s attorney because they impaired the ability of injured workers to find counsel. Oklahoma struck down the so-called Oklahoma option because it impermissibly created two separate systems for workers’ compensation, one of which could make it almost impossible for workers to collect benefits.

While it is encouraging that courts are protecting the rights of injured workers, the decisions in Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama have all been driven by anti-worker legislation in those states. Unfortunately, that trend is continuing in 2017.  Possible Democratic presidential candidate and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through anti-worker reforms to New York’s workers’ compensation act.

The recent attack on workers’ compensation has been bi-partisan. A newly- elected Republican legislature in Iowa passed anti-worker workers’ compensation reforms which were signed into law by that state’s Republican governor. The Iowa reforms include a cruel measure that caps benefits for senior citizens who are injured on the job. That provision may be ripe for an equal protection challenge.

Relying on appellate courts to protect the rights of injured workers’ is a risky strategy. Workers compensation laws were passed by state legislatures in response to pressure from unions and other workers advocates during the early 20th century when appellate courts were generally hostile to employees. While it seems that trend may have reversed in the early 21st century, appellate judges certainly can’t be accused of pro-worker bias.

Good legislation also prevents the need for worker advocates to look to the judiciary to protect the rights of workers. Part of the reason, Judge Ballard ruled against the Alabama Workers Compensation Act was because the maximum benefit rate had not increased in 30 years. In Nebraska, our maximum benefit rate increases automatically under a formula determined by the Department of Labor. Nebraska’s current maximum rate is $817 per week for temporary and permanent disability.

Undocumented Worker Arrested after Work Comp Claim

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

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).

Attorney Fees and Incentives in Workers’ Compensation

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

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.)

Nail Salon Workers: Know Your Rights

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

The nail salon industry in New York State provides thousands of jobs. However, many nail salon employees endure unsafe working conditions. They are exposed to many chemicals; sometimes without proper ventilation. Because of this, New York State has enacted a series of nail salon reforms to protect workers’ from injuries or illnesses.

These new reforms include safety requirements that dictate that the owner of a salon must give employees protective equipment at no cost. Specifically, workers have the right to use a respirator when buffing or filing nails and using chemicals. Furthermore, workers’ have the right to use protective gloves and eye equipment. Employers must also comply with certain ventilation requirements. These changes will ensure that nail salon employees are protected. For more information regarding nail salon requirements you can visit: https://www.ny.gov/programs/nail-salon-safety-what-you-need-know.

If you get sick (in lawyer-speak “develop occupational illness”), because you are exposed to chemicals at work, you may be entitled wage replacement benefits and medical coverage through the New York State workers’ compensation system.

There is a time limit for filing your claims. The limit is the later of:

  1. two (2) years from the date of your disability and
  2. two (2) years from when you knew or should have known the disease was due to your exposure at work.

You do not need to have lost time from work to have a valid claim for workers’ compensation benefits.

CBC: B.C. Wildfire Smoke Partly to Blame for Washington State Farmworker’s Death

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


By Cory Correia, CBC News
 Posted: Aug 10, 2017

A temporary farm worker has died in Washington state and advocacy groups have blamed poor working conditions, in part due to smoke from B.C. wildfires.

Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, of Mexico, died in a Seattle hospital Sunday after he became ill last week at the blueberry farm where he worked near Sumas, Wash., just south of the Canadian border. 

An advocacy group, Community to Community Development, said Silva became sick from dehydration, and died after going into cardiac arrest. (Silva used his second name as a surname)

The group’s executive director, Rosalinda Guillen said poor working conditions at the blueberry farm have been aggravated by wildfire smoke that has blown across the border.  

“The workers have been overworked, underfed, have not been hydrated enough, and this has been going on for weeks, and that is what led to the death of Honesto,” said Guillen.

Silva had been working as a berry picker for Sarbanand Farms since the spring. He was married with three children, all of whom are in Mexico.

Guillen said Silva fell ill last week while at work. He went to a local hospital, where Guillen said he suffered cardiac arrest. He was transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he died, the hospital said.

But a spokesman for Sarbanand Farms said Silva’s death was caused by complications from his diabetes. In a statement sent to local media, chief administrative officer Cliff Woolley said one of Silva’s relatives told the company that Silva ran out of medicine but did not tell anyone else.

When Silva fell ill last week at work, the company said it called for an ambulance and he was taken to hospital.

Silva’s illness sparked protests among his co-workers who complained that working conditions at the blueberry farm were unsafe. Nearly 70 workers were fired Saturday after the demonstrations.

Protests continued Tuesday after workers heard news of Silva’s death. 

Meanwhile, Guilllen said other workers have also fallen ill.

“The smoke coming in over our area has aggravated those situations already and caused the workers to say ‘We’re going to die if we don’t do something about this,’ because they were collapsing,” said Guillen.

On Monday, five people were taken to clinics, suffering from advanced dehydration, she said.

Washington state’s department of Labour and Industries is investigating the case, looking into workplace safety factors. It has not decided whether to proceed with a formal investigation. 

Read the rest of the CBC report here…

Photo credit: CBC News