Tag Archives: grand bargain

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.

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.

Theodore Roosevelt Pushed For Protection Of Workers

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

Workers’ Compensation benefits are often confusing and seemingly unfair at first glance to many of my clients. As a result, I often find myself explaining to these clients how we, as a country, got to where we are with workers’ compensation laws and why the benefits are more limited than other civil lawsuits.

In explaining work comp laws, I usually give a brief description of the work comp system that was first developed in the early 20th century and a description of the “Grand Bargain”, the premise that employers pay for some benefits of their injured employees in exchange that the employee cannot sue that employer for negligence in civil court.

I, and many scholars, could go on and on about the history of the Grand Bargain and how it was strengthened/reworked in the 1970’s. Also, scholars can (and have), go on about the recent “reform” to workers’ compensation laws that have eroded workers’ rights in domino-fashion in many states by anti-worker legislation.

Nevertheless, I think the most poignant description of why we need to protect workers, and continue to protect workers, is this quote from our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, in calling for further reform of laws that Congress passed for employers’ liability laws:

In spite of all precautions exercised by employers there are unavoidable accidents and even deaths involved in nearly every line of business connected with the mechanic arts. This inevitable sacrifice of life may be reduced to a minimum, but it can not be completely eliminated. It is a great social injustice to compel the employee, or rather the family of the killed or disabled victim, to bear the entire burden of such an inevitable sacrifice. In other words, society shirks its duty by laying the whole cost on the victim, whereas the injury comes from what may be called the legitimate risks of the trade. Compensation for accidents or deaths due in any line of industry to the actual conditions under which that industry is carried on, should be paid by that portion of the community for the benefit of which the industry is carried on–that is, by those who profit by the industry. If the entire trade risk is placed upon the employer he will promptly and properly add it to the legitimate cost of production and assess it proportionately upon the consumers of his commodity. It is therefore clear to my mind that the law should place this entire “risk of a trade” upon the employer. Neither the Federal law, nor, as far as I am informed, the State laws dealing with the question of employers’ liability are sufficiently thorogoing.

— Theodore Roosevelt: Sixth Annual Message, December 3, 1996.