Category Archives: employment law

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.

Post-Injury Drug Test? OSHA Says Not So Fast

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

Workers who report an on-the-job injury may not be subject to mandatory drug testing if a new rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that prohibits blanket post-injury drug tests withstands a court challenge from employers.

In May, OSHA published a rule prohibiting employers from having policies that force employees hurt on the job to take drug tests because of concerns about retaliation. This blog has long recognized the potential for retaliation that mandatory drug tests pose and supports the proposed rule by OSHA. OSHA’s new rule was drafted at roughly the same time as the release of the U.S. Department of Labor report that was critical of the shortcomings in state workers’ compensation systems.

Though OSHA implemented the limits on drug testing to limit retaliation, the rules limiting drug testing also help preserve employee doctor choice, which is an integral part of workers’ compensation law in Nebraska and other states. Many employers will inform employees that they must get drug tested at an occupational medicine clinic if they have a work injury even if workers have a right to see their own doctor. This can lead to employees being forced back to work too soon and or not receiving sufficient treatment for their work injuries. Both the fear of retaliation and the circumvention of doctor choice rules lead the costs of work injuries to be borne by employees, which is a major concern of the Department of Labor.

Due to push back from employers, the rule’s enforcement will be postponed until Nov. 1 and will likely be delayed longer due to a court challenge to the rule. A challenge to a Labor Department rule deeming that home health aides were employees for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act took over a year to work its way through the federal courts, until it was upheld by a federal circuit court in June.

Even if the rule is implemented, post-injury drug testing will not disappear from the workplace. Employers can still test if they have a reasonable suspicion of intoxication or drug use. Most federal and defense contractors will be exempt from the OSHA rule, as well as truckers and railroad employees. Furthermore, in states with drug-free workplace laws, mandatory post-injury testing may still be permitted, depending on the language of the statute. Nebraska allows employers to fire an employee who refuses a lawful request for a drug test. If the new OSHA rule is ultimately upheld by the federal courts, I would expect a push by employers to amend drug-free workplace laws.

Tax Day For Independent Contractors: More Paperwork, More Taxes

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

The issue of whether Uber drivers and other so-called “Gig Economy” workers are employees or independent contractors is a hot topic among lawyers and policy makers. But last week independent contractors in the Gig Economy and beyond had a more mundane but no less serious dilemma:

Filing their taxes

Independent contractors are required to pay their full FICA and Medicare taxes. These higher taxes can be offset by more liberal deductions but that assumes a contractor has more expenses to deduct.

Deductions also require paperwork.  Filing your taxes as an IRS Form 1099 independent contractor is more complicated than filing your taxes as an IRS W-2 employee.

Independent contractor status can be helpful for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur. But for those who just want to support themselves and family, involuntary independent contractor status can mean higher taxes, more paperwork and more risk of trouble with the IRS and state revenue agencies.  Future tax days could be even more stressful if more workers are forced into independent contractor status in order to support themselves and families.

Three Clues Your Employer Doesn’t Want You To Return To Work After An Injury

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

Apologists for Thought leaders in the workers compensation insurance industry like to tout how they want injured employees to “return to work.”  But insurance industry rhetoric about the importance of return to work is belied by at least three common scenarios involving employees with serious work injuries.

  1. Employer requires an employee to resign in order to receive a lump sum settlement for their workers compensation claim: Early on in my career a defense lawyer told me that his client “Didn’t want their employees driving to the plant in an Escalade (this was the mid-2000s) after they settled their workers compensation case.” Putting aside the absurdity of someone who earns wages that would make their kids eligible for free or reduced lunch buying a luxury SUV after they had been off of work for an extended length of time, this practice indicates that some employers really don’t want injured workers to return to work after an injury.

    A recent discussion over the WILG listserv indicated that resignation as a condition of a workers compensation case settlement was a common practice across the United States. An agreement to resign normally comes as a separate severance agreement. Those settlement agreements may not be binding if an employer doesn’t include the right language in the release which is why an injured worker would want to consult with an employment lawyer or have a lawyer familiar with employment law and workers compensation represent them in their work injury.

    Certain states, like Massachusetts, outlaw the practice of conditioning a settlement on resignation. Even in states where the practice is considered lawful lawyers may consider challenging such practices on the basis of anti-retaliation laws, unfair claims practice laws or causes of action that prevent interference with contractual relationships.

  2. Employer requires employee to return to work with “no restrictions”. 100 percent healed policies are considered to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and by some intermediate level federal appellate courts. Regardless of whether the Supreme Court or Congress ultimately decide such policies are illegal, oftentimes a person with an injury that requires surgery and time off from work is going to have some permanent restrictions.

    Many times requests that an employee return to work without restrictions are sent after an employee exhausts their 12 weeks of FMLA. Oftentimes employers will extend a short amount of unpaid leave in addition to FMLA. When injured employees receive these letters many of them feel like their company is trying to push them out. This feeling can sometimes be correct. That’s why it is helpful to have an attorney who knows how workers compensation and employment laws intersect.

  3. Employer suggests that employee apply for private disability for a work injury: Private short-term (STD) and long-term disability (LTD) policies can be helpful to employees. Some policies even allow employees to collect both LTD and STD with workers compensation benefits.

    But some employers will push employee onto disability because it is cheaper than paying workers compensation benefits. Even more insidiously if an employee stays off work long enough that they are eligible for long term disability, some long-term disability policies require that employees apply for social security disability or SSDI in order to continue receiving LTD. Many of these policies hold if an employee receives SSDI they need to payback the LTD insurance company for the time that SSDI and LTD benefits overlapped.

    I ran into a policy like this representing a client in a disability discrimination case. Courts have questioned the legality of these policies as well. If you are stuck in a situation where you are applying for long term disability because of a work injury and being forced to apply for SSDI, you should consult with a lawyer who is familiar with workers compensation and SSDI.

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.