Category Archives: employment law

Proposed changes to Iowa workers compensation cruelly target elderly employees

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

Anti-worker changes could be coming to Iowa workers compensation. To me the cruelest reform would be the proposal to end permanent total disability benefits at age 67 and limit workers who are over 67 who become permanently and totally disabled to 150 weeks of benefits. One memorable client of mine demonstrates the callousness of the proposed Iowa reforms.

My client Doris Newkirk was 83 years old when she was injured working as a hostess at Lone Star Steakhouse in west Omaha in June 2006. She was near a bathroom door when a large male co-worker came barreling into the bathroom and caused Doris to fall back and injure multiple parts of her body. Like many retirees, Doris worked because she needed the money. After her injury she was unable to work. Fortunately Doris was able to receive permanent total disability benefits to make up for the income she lost because she wasn’t able to work. Those permanent benefits started in September 2007 and continued for five years and 10 ½ months until her death on July 21, 2013.

If Nebraska law limited those injured over the age of 67 to 150 weeks of permanent total disability benefits, Doris wouldn’t have been paid anything for the last three years of her life. To her credit, Doris travelled from Omaha to Lincoln in her late 80s to testify against similar legislation when it was proposed in Nebraska. According the Business and Labor committee clerk at the time, the state Senator who introduced the bill at the behest of insurance interests made a motion to kill the bill after listening to her testimony.

Workers compensation is a cost of business. But according to CNBC, Iowa has the second lowest cost of doing business in the country. Iowa, like Nebraska, generally ranks well in national surveys of business climate. Iowa’s weakest area when it comes to business climate,  according to CNBC, is quality of workforce. Unlike Nebraska, Iowa lacks vocational rehabilitation for injured workers. If Iowa is looking to reform its workers compensation system, they should consider investing in vocational rehabilitation so injured workers can fully regain their ability to contribute to the economy in Iowa.

Six Questions You Should Answer Before You Become a Whistleblower

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

Whistleblowers have helped expose some of the biggest corporate scandals of the 21st century, including Enron and the Bernie Madoff scandals. Whistleblowers usually expose themselves to a real personal risk by opposing wrongdoing. These risks often include getting fired from their job. If you are thinking about blowing the whistle on illegal conduct at work, here are six questions you should ask yourself:

1.         Are you really opposing unlawful or illegal activity? Lawyers who defend companies against whistleblower claims often may paint whistleblowing as mere disagreement about management style or philosophy. As a matter of law, a whistleblower also must have good faith or honest belief that they are opposing illegal conduct. If you are thinking about bringing a whistleblower complaint, it would be a good idea to do a little research. Whistleblowers.gov is a great resource for the various industries that are covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration whistleblower statutes. Most experienced employment attorneys are also willing to do some free consultation for prospective whistleblowers as to whether they are opposing illegal conduct.

2.         Does someone in upper management at your company know about your complaints? This can be intimidating, but in my experience, you will have a stronger case if you bring up your concerns to someone higher up in management than your direct supervisor or worksite manager. This puts the company on notice about the unlawful conduct, and it bolsters your credibility as someone who was concerned enough about the potentially illegal conduct that they reported it to someone within the company who could act on it. Likewise, if someone with authority at your company is on notice of the potentially illegal conduct and that person doesn’t take action, that can bolster your possible case. Sometimes firms will have an “ethics” hotline or will refer you to human resources. I don’t think it hurts to report through those channels, but I think you should also report the unlawful conduct to someone who has the actual authority to change the practice that you are challenging.

3.         Can you frame your complaint as a business problem and suggest solutions to the problem of unlawful conduct and be reasonable in how you report the misconduct? I cribbed this idea from a post from the excellent SkloverWorkingWisdom blog written by attorney Alan Sklover. All things being equal in an employment law case, the party who is most reasonable is going to win. This fact tends to disadvantage employees, because it’s hard to keep a level head when you are being mistreated or being asked to participate in unlawful conduct at work. But do your best to be level headed and objective when you bring up your complaints to management. Like the point in the last paragraph, if the employer ignores your practical solution to the potentially unlawful conduct, then you have bolstered your possible case.

4.         Will other employees will join you in your complaints? Whistleblowers tend to get tarred as tattletales. If co-workers are joining you in your complaints, the case becomes more credible. If you make a legitimate complaint as a group, you also gain protection of the National Labor Relations Act for engaging in protected concerted activity, as well as under any whistleblower law that you might be bringing a case under.

5.         How strongly can you support your claims? To win any whistleblower retaliation case, you must have evidence to prove your case. In most cases, this requires written evidence that often takes the form of emails that implicate possible wrongdoers. If a case gets into litigation, then in theory, such documents must be disclosed. That does not always happen in practice. Additionally, having documents will help a lawyer determine if you have a possible claim and how strong your possible claim could be.

Employees may have concerns about revealing confidential documents and/or be concerned that their employer may take legal action against them for revealing company information. Many whistleblower laws protect certain types of information from being deemed confidential. Employers are also somewhat reluctant to act against whistleblowers, because this can invite more retaliation litigation. But potential whistleblowers should be aware of possible legal liability for disclosing company information, so an employee should be very careful about how they choose to share company information. Attorney-client communications, even those communications involving prospective clients are confidential. By consulting with an attorney, a prospective whistleblower can get some guidance as to whether they are risking legal liability by disclosing information.

Evidence can also take the form of witness testimony, which is why it is helpful if you have a group of employees opposing potentially unlawful conduct.

6.         Are you willing to change jobs or relocate? Even if what you think is a valid whistleblower complaint is merely a dispute with a manager over something that it isn’t illegal, the fact for you is that if you are doing something or working in an environment that you don’t like, you are almost setting yourself up to fail. This is probably even more true if you have a valid whistleblower claim. Studies show that it is easier to find a job while you are still employed. Even with anti-discrimination laws, employers have broad discretion to fire employees under the “employment at-will” doctrine. The underappreciated flip side of employment at-will for employees is that they can quit without cause or notice. If you are in a dysfunctional or even hostile work environment, it’s smart to take advantage of the ability to quit freely if you have another job lined up.

Why an Obscure Securities Law Case Could Affect SSDI

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

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) cases are largely decided by administrative law judges (ALJs). A decision questioning the role of ALJs in another area of the law could cause some major complications for SSDI applicants and SSDI beneficiaries.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently set aside a conviction for securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) because the ALJ who decided the case should have been appointed under the Appointments Clause rather than hired by the SEC. The 10th Circuit’s decision directly conflicts with a recent decision made by the District of Columbia  Circuit Court of Appeals, which means the U.S. Supreme Court could take up the issue.

This matters to SSDI applicants, their attorneys and even present SSDI beneficiaries because the vast majority of administrative law judges, roughly 1,200 of 1,400, have been hired by the Social Security Administration to hear Social Security Disability appeals. Similar to ALJs from the SEC, ALJs who hear SSDI appeals are hired on merit and are federal employees.

If the U.S. Supreme Court followed the recent 10th Circuit decision and applied it to ALJs who heard Social Security Disability appeals, at least 1,200 ALJs would have to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This could lead to further delays and uncertainty related to SSDI appeals. If the 10th Circuit decision were applied to SSDI judges, it is uncertain as to whether awards of disability would still be valid if they were made by unconstitutionally chosen ALJs. In 2014, in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, the Supreme Court held that the NLRB’s decision made by commissioners who were appointed by constitutionally invalid recess appointments was invalid.

The Social Security Administration has recently moved to abolish the treating physician rule in an effort to decrease claim payments. Uncertainty over whether the awards of SSDI benefits are constitutional would add additional hurdles to those needing SSDI benefits. If you are applying for Social Security Disability or thinking about it, contact an experienced attorney. Also, contact your lawmakers to express your concerns about the SSDI system to them.

Gorsuch, Chevron and Workplace Law

Judge Gorsuch

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

Employers and their attorneys are widely hailing President Trump’s nomination of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of the reason that management-side lawyers are praising Gorsuch is his position on Chevron deference. Gorsuch’s views on Chevron could affect how workplace laws are interpreted and how they apply to workers.

Chevron deference is a legal rule that a court will give the benefit of the doubt about the interpretation of the law to how the executive agency charged with enforcing that law understands the law. Gorsuch has criticized Chevron on separation of powers basis, stating that Chevron deference gives too much power to the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judiciary branches. Recently, government agencies have been interpreting employment laws in a way that is more favorable toward employees. Recent rules issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act are a prime example.

Many workers who get hurt on the job are told that they must come back to work with no restrictions. Chevron deference could be a powerful legal tool for workers faced with such policies. The new EEOC regulations on the ADA outlaw 100-percent-healed policies or policies that require plaintiffs to return to work without restrictions. In the EEOC guidance on the issue, the EEOC cites Kaufman v. Peterson Health Care VII, LLC 769 F. 3d 958 (7th Cir. 2014) as an example of policies that they believe to be unlawful under ADAAA. This case represents a subtle but real shift from current 8th Circuit law as stated in Fjellestad v. Pizza Hut of America, 188 F. 3d 949, 951-952 (8th Cir. 1999) where the 8th Circuit joined other federal circuits that held that failure to engage in an interactive process in accommodating a disability was not per se discrimination, and that there was no duty to engage in the interactive process. The EEOC’s interpretations of the new regulations still require that a plaintiff be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

But as indicated by Kaufman, courts may be less likely to dismiss cases before trial, or in legal terminology, to grant summary judgment, on the issue of whether a plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation if the defendant does not engage in an interactive process or summarily decides that an employee should not be allowed to return without restrictions.

The fact that there is a split between regional appellate courts, a so-called circuit split, over “100 percent healed” policies increases the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether 100-percent-healed policies violate the ADA. Another issue where there is a circuit split that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide is the legality of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements.

Many workers unwittingly give up their rights to have employment-law disputes heard in court when they agree to mandatory arbitration clauses as a term of employment. In D.R. Horton Inc., 357 N.L.B. No 184 (2012) the National Labor Relations Board ruled that mandatory arbitration clauses prohibited Fair Labor Standards Act collective action cases because they interfered with protected concerted activity under 29 U.S.C. §157 and 29 U.S.C. § 158. In Lewis v. Epic Systems, 823 F. 3d 1147, 1154 (7th Cir. 2016), the 7th Circuit struck down a mandatory arbitration clause partly based on giving Chevron deference to the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton. The 9th Circuit agreed with the 7th Circuit in Morris v. Ernst and Young, LLP, No 13-16599 (Aug. 22, 2016). Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the 8th Circuit disagreed with the D.R. Horton decision in Owen v. Bristol Care, 702 F. 3d 1050 (8th Cir. 2013).

If confirmed, Gorsuch would be unlikely to give much weight to the opinions of the EEOC or NLRB in interpreting employment laws. Chevron deference is an unpopular concept with pro-business conservatives. Recently, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation that, if enacted, would abolish Chevron deference.

Conversely, Chevron deference is a popular concept with progressive employee and civil-rights advocates, as it allowed the Obama administration to expand employee protections in the face of a hostile Congress. But with the advent of the Trump administration and his immigration policies, progressives have a newfound appreciation for separation of powers.

Also, employee advocates probably will not like many of the new rules and regulations issued by Trump appointees such as Labor Secretary nominee Larry Puzder. A prospective abolition of Chevron could be helpful to challenging rules made by a Trump administration. An example from the last Republican administration is instructive. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court in Long Island Care at Home Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S. 158 (2007) gave Chevron deference to Bush administration rules to exclude home health aides from coverage under the FLSA. It was nine years later that the rule was overturned, giving Chevron deference to Obama administration rules regarding home health aides and the FLSA.

New Employees Face Higher Risk, Harder Consequences for Work Injuries

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

As the holiday season approaches, many people will take on second or holiday jobs. Workers taking on such jobs will be taking on a heightened risk of injury. One academic study showed that temporary employees are two to three times more likely to be injured. An Omaha-based construction company found that 65 percent of lost-time injuries took place in the first 90 days of employment (this link is a downloadable presentation). This blog post will describe some causes of injury and then talk about some particular challenges faced by new employees who are injured.

Slips, trips and falls are the most common cause of work injury. This hazard can be particularly acute during the winter in retail and restaurant jobs because customers will track in snow and other moisture. Strain from lifting is also a common injury. Warehouse work is in high demand over the holiday season, and one risk particular to such work is the risk of falling pallets or boxes.

One challenge that new employees face when they get hurt is how to calculate their disability benefits. A worker may not have been employed long enough for an employer and/or insurer to accurately determine how much the employee should be paid in benefits after getting hurt. One approach may to be base this benefit rate on pay of similarly situated co-workers. If you believe you are getting shortchanged on benefits because you were a new employee when you were hurt, you should contact a lawyer.

Workers’ compensation is supposed to pay you benefits regardless of your fault in the injury. But fault can still play a role in work-injury claims. If your injury was the fault of someone other than your employer or a co-worker, then you might be able to pursue a negligence case against that party. Unfortunately, some employers have tried to reintroduce fault into the workers’ compensation system, to the detriment of newer employees. Some employers will fire or discipline employees who have preventable or lost-time accidents during the beginning of their employment. In my view, such policies amount to employers almost admitting that they are retaliating against employees who get hurt at work. If you have been disciplined under such a policy, you should contact an attorney.

Can I Collect Unemployment and Workers’ Compensation Benefits at the Same Time?

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

In Nebraska, an injured worker who is laid off, fired or leaves a job for good cause can collect unemployment benefits and still receive Temporary Partial Disability (TPD) benefits and Permanent Partial Disability (PPD) benefits from the workers’ compensation insurance company. The Nebraska Labor Department unemployment law does not allow a worker to receive unemployment during the same week the person is paid Temporary Total Disability (TTD) workers’ compensation payments.

To receive unemployment benefits, the injured worker must be ready, willing and able to work.  As long as injured worker is ready, willing and able to work within one’s own restrictions, that worker can receive unemployment benefits during the same week that they are entitled to TPD and PPD benefits. 

If a person is totally unable to work and getting TTD benefits, that person cannot receive unemployment benefits since they, by definition, are not ready, willing and able to work.

Under the workers’ compensation laws, it is also important to remember that compensation benefits cannot be offset with what is paid under the unemployment benefits. For guidance, please refer to Nebraska Statute 48-130 that supports this rule of law.

If you have been laid off or terminated, you are still entitled to workers’ compensation benefits in the above situations.

If you have any questions, call us for a free consultation.

Is it Illegal to Discriminate Against Me on the Job Because of My Accent?

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

Contrary to popular opinion, many immigrants work in professional and white-collar jobs. The explosive growth of immigration to the United States means that more immigrants will work in white-collar jobs in the United States. Since white collar jobs often require verbal communication, immigrants employed in white-collar professions and their employers will increasingly face the question of whether it is legal to discriminate on the basis of accent. 

Most federal and state courts that have addressed the issue believe that it is illegal for employees to discriminate based on accent if that discrimination is tied to nationality. Courts have even gone so far as to state that nationality and accent are intertwined, which means that they take such discrimination seriously. However, courts understand that employers have an interest in clear verbal communication. So what steps should you take if you think you are being discriminated against because of your accent? 

  1. Apply for a promotion for which you are qualified: Discrimination is only actionable if the company takes some action against you. One so-called adverse action is a failure to promote. If you are a trusted and valued employee, a company will often give you a reason why you were not promoted. If this reason is related to your accent, you can often get a decision maker to say as much. Legally, this is considered direct evidence of discrimination.
  2. If possible, reach out to other foreign-born employees in your workplace: If other foreign-born employees are being discriminated against for the same or similar reasons, it makes sense to work with them, as it can show a pattern by the employer. Also, when employees work together to fight discrimination, they are not just protected by civil rights laws, but they are also protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
  3. If possible, contact an employment attorney in your area before you decide to take action:  Every situation is different, and laws vary from state to state. A lawyer can give you tips about how to potentially build a case, can give you advice about actions and tactics to avoid, and can advise you about any legal deadlines that might apply to your potential case.

How the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage Applies in the Workplace, Part 2: Family and Medical Leave Act

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

Another consequence of the decision legalizing same-sex marriage is that same-sex spouses are eligible for FMLA leave to take care of a spouse with a serious health condition. This raises some difficult practical questions, such as how FMLA leave works for same-sex couples that include: 

Can an employer ask for a marriage certificate when an employee asks for leave to take care of a same-sex spouse? 

The answer to this question is probably yes. The U.S. Department of Labor states that an employer can ask for a verification of marriage so long as they don’t discriminate in the requirement. An employee with a newly legally recognized same-sex marriage may feel inconvenienced that they have to prove their marital status to get FMLA leave. They might also feel they are being discriminated against because heterosexual individuals aren’t asked to provide a marriage certificate when they take FMLA leave to take care of their spouse. However, if an employer requires heterosexual couples to verify marriage through a producing a marriage certificate for insurance purposes, it could make sense that a heterosexual person is not asked to produce a marriage certificate to take family leave, if they have already done so for insurance purposes. 

Taking family leave can be stressful, and I am sure there are some human-resources officials who hold anti-LGBT attitudes. But even if an employer doesn’t request a marriage certificate for heterosexual couples to verify FMLA leave, employees should assume that the request is made in good faith. Courts favor individuals who comply with the requests of their employers, even if those requests aren’t made within the letter of the law. 

In states where marriage was same sex marriage was legalized by Obergefell, when do FMLA protections start?

In states like Nebraska, where the Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage, an interesting question is whether an employer is required to retroactively count family leave as FMLA if the leave started before the marriage was formally legalized in that state but the individual’s same-sex marriage was recognized in another state. This is a pertinent issue in Nebraska, since many same sex-couples were married in nearby Iowa, which has recognized same-sex marriage since 2009. The U.S. Department of Labor would likely argue that if you married your same-sex partner in Iowa that you would have had FMLA protections in Nebraska to take care of your spouse even if Nebraska didn’t recognized same marriage until June 26, 2015. But courts may not give much weight to the opinion of the U.S. Department of Labor. This issue is a legal toss-up. The best thing that same-sex couples can do to protect their rights to FMLA leave is to not give their employer any valid excuses for terminating them for taking FMLA leave. 

Please click here to read part one of this series. Feel free to contact our office if you have questions about the issues raised in these two posts.