Author Archives: Leonard Jernigan

Young Workers More Likely to Get Hurt

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

 

If you are a younger worker, you are more likely to get hurt on the job.  That is the conclusion in a recent interesting article in Occupational Health & Safety: Protecting our Future: Young Worker Safety on the Job.

The article offers theories on why younger workers are hurt more often, as well as suggestions on what employers can do to protect their workers.   In many instances, younger workers are performing more physical jobs, lack experience or proper training, and may be less likely to speak up or ask questions about what is being required.  The article offers some great suggestions for employers, including:

Remember that young workers are not just ‘little adults.’ You must be mindful of the unique aspects of communicating with young workers.”

This is a helpful reminder for all of us in positions of authority or supervision.

It should be noted that younger workers (under age 27 in Wisconsin) carry a “presumption” of maximum earnings for permanency benefits.  Wisconsin law recognizes that a worker’s earning capacity before age 27 may not be an adequate representation of their actual earning power/capacity.  Injured workers–under age 27–are wise (beyond their years) to consult with an experienced attorney. 

Rule Requiring Disclosure of Labor Law Violations by Federal Contractors Temporarily Blocked by Federal Courts

President Barack Obama signs the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplace” executive order

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

A federal judge in Texas recently issued a temporary injunction against the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order. The order would have required contractors applying for federal contracts to disclose any violations of most federal and state labor and employment laws within the last three years in order to receive a federal contract over $500,000.

In an opinion criticized by employees’ groups and hailed by employers’ groups, U.S. District Judge Marcia Crone criticized that the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order overstepped executive authority on a number of grounds, including the fact that the forced disclosure violated the First Amendment rights of government contractors. The order amounted to defamation of certain contractors, which violated their Fifth Amendment liberty interests, and the order’s restriction on the use of arbitration agreement in employment contracts of federal contractors violated the Federal Arbitration Act.

Crone also wrote that the executive order violated congressional intent in how labor laws were enforced, because it forced contractors to settle labor and employment law issues in order to remain eligible for government contracts.

But in my mind, abstract concerns about the rights of contractors pale once actual people are considered. I represented a gentleman who was fired from a federal contractor after he complained about not being paid properly. In fact, he was chased off the premises by the owner of the company with a stun gun, and the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission found in a public hearing, after hearing evidence from both sides, that the company, Midwest Demolition, had retaliated against my client. Earlier this year, Midwest Demolition paid a settlement through a consent decree to the U.S. Department of Labor for not paying their employees overtime. To me, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order is perfectly suited to deal with egregious employer misconduct.

Judge Crone did not order an injunction against enforcement of the paycheck transparency parts of the executive order, which would require federal contractors to inform workers if they were independent contractors and to fully and clearly explain deductions.

The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order is the latest example of the use of executive-branch rule-making to expand employee protections. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court upheld a Department of Labor regulation expanding wage and hour protections to home health aides after it withstood a court challenge from employers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s attempt to limit post-work injury drug testing is currently being challenged in federal courts. Executive rule-making is a consequence of partisan gridlock when Democrats control the presidency and Republicans control Congress. Pundits and political forecasters are anticipating more political gridlock after the election, so executive rules that withstand court challenges could be how employee rights expand for the foreseeable future. 

Department of Labor Weighs In on New Age of Salary Servitude for ‘Executives’

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

Most of the U.S. workforce has the right, provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act, to be paid overtime for working more than 40 hours in a week. Before the federal government set rules for overtime, most employees worked longer hours, and millions of Americans worked six or seven days a week, as Chinese factory workers do today. Salaried workers also have the right to be paid a premium for overtime work, unless they fall into an exempt category as a professional, an administrator, or an executive. Exempt employees must be skilled and exercise independent judgment, or be a boss with employees to supervise. However, many companies have worked to get around these overtime rules by classifying employees like cooks, convenience store employees or restaurant workers as “managers,” “supervisors,” or “assistant managers or supervisors,” so that their employer can deny them overtime under this exception. 

In May 2016, the Department of Labor issued its final rule establishing a new minimum salary threshold for the white-collar exemptions (executive, administrative and professional) under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This new threshold of $913 per week ($47,476 annualized) more than doubles the current minimum weekly salary threshold of $455 per week ($23,660 annualized).  While that may seem like a huge increase, the old threshold level is only $2 a week above the poverty level for a family of four. Twenty-one states have filed suit to challenge this rule, citing the rule will force many businesses, including state and local governments, to unfairly and substantially increase their employment costs. 

The old rule allowed companies to put employees on “salary” at a low rate and require them to work sometimes significant overtime. The fact that so many government entities are concerned about this new rule substantially increasing their employment costs underscores the extent to which even government entities have taken advantage of employees in this fashion. Can you imagine earning $25,000/year and having to work 50, 60 or 70 hours a week? Even at 50 hours a week, that equates to an hourly wage of only $8.01!

In the first year, the department estimates that the new rule may affect, in some manner, over 10 million workers who earn between $455/week and the new $913/week threshold.  

The median worker has seen a wage increase of just 5 percent between 1979 and 2012, despite overall productivity growth of 74.5 percent (Mishel and Shierholz, 2013), according to the Economic Policy Institute. One reason Americans’ paychecks are not keeping pace with their productivity is that millions of middle-class and even lower-middle-class workers are working overtime and not getting paid for it. Before this rule change, the federal wage and hour law was out of date. This change purports to correct this modern day servitude that the law – for the last 30 years – has carved out a huge exception, allowing workers to be taken advantage of simply by assigning them a title and paying them a salary.  

 

Sources:

Labor Report Urges Study Of A Federal Role In State Workers’ Comp Laws

Howard Berkes and Michael Grabell have been investigating the decline of workers compensation for Pro Publica and NPR.

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

Howard Berkes and Michael Grabell have been shining a light on the deterioration of state workers’ compensation benefits over the last decade. A new U.S. Department of Labor report bolsters their investigative journalism, noting that those hurt on the job are at “great risk of falling into poverty” because state workers’ compensation systems are failing to provide them with adequate benefits.

The Workers Injury Litigation Group (WILG) has been fighting against this decline for 20 years, and we will continue to advocate for fair benefits for injured workers. The following is a summary of Mr. Berkes and Grabell’s recent article:

A “race to the bottom” in state workers’ compensation laws has the Labor Department calling for “exploration” of federal oversight and federal minimum benefits.

“Working people are at great risk of falling into poverty,” the agency says in a new report on changes in state workers’ comp laws. Those changes have resulted in “the failure of state workers’ compensation systems to provide [injured workers] with adequate benefits.”

In the last decade, the report notes, states across the country have enacted new laws, policies and procedures “which have limited benefits, reduced the likelihood of successful application for workers’ compensation benefits, and/or discouraged injured workers from applying for benefits.”

The 44-page report was prompted by a letter last fall from 10 prominent Democratic lawmakers, who urged Labor Department action to protect injured workers in the wake of a ProPublica/NPR series on changes in workers’ comp laws in 33 states.

The ProPublica/NPR stories featured injured workers who lost their homes, were denied surgeries or were even denied prosthetic devices recommended by their doctors.

A “race to the bottom” in state workers’ compensation laws has the Labor Department calling for “exploration” of federal oversight and federal minimum benefits.

“Working people are at great risk of falling into poverty,” the agency says in a new report on changes in state workers’ comp laws. Those changes have resulted in “the failure of state workers’ compensation systems to provide [injured workers] with adequate benefits.”

In the last decade, the report notes, states across the country have enacted new laws, policies and procedures “which have limited benefits, reduced the likelihood of successful application for workers’ compensation benefits, and/or discouraged injured workers from applying for benefits.”

The 44-page report was prompted by a letter last fall from 10 prominent Democratic lawmakers, who urged Labor Department action to protect injured workers in the wake of a ProPublica/NPR series on changes in workers’ comp laws in 33 states.

The ProPublica/NPR stories featured injured workers who lost their homes, were denied surgeries or were even denied prosthetic devices recommended by their doctors.

“The current situation warrants a significant change in approach in order to address the inadequacies of the system,” the report says.

That’s where federal intervention comes in. The Labor Department calls for “exploration” of “the establishment of standards that would trigger increased federal oversight if workers’ compensation programs fail to meet those standards.”

The agency also suggests a fresh look at reestablishing a 1972 Nixon administration commission that recommended minimum benefits and urged Congress to act if states failed to comply.

“In this critical area of the social safety net, the federal government has basically abdicated any responsibility,” says Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

Without minimum federal standards for workers’ comp benefits, Perez adds, the current system “is really putting workers who are hurt on the job on a pathway to poverty.”

Prior to the report’s release, employers, insurance companies and others involved in workers’ comp programs expressed alarm at the possibility of federal intervention.

“There has never been federal ‘oversight of state workers’ compensation programs’,” says a statement posted on the website of a group called Strategic Services on Unemployment and Workers’ Compensation, which says it represents the workers’ comp interests of the business community.

“Federal requirements imposed on a national basis would be inconsistent with the state workers’ compensation system, which has been in place for more than 100 years without federal oversight,” the group wrote.

Federal minimum benefits could ensure that injured workers across the country would not receive lesser benefits for often shorter periods of time simply because they lived in a state where lawmakers dramatically cut workers’ comp costs for employers.

“This is a system with no federal minimum standards and absolutely no federal oversight,” says Deborah Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project. “Clearly, more federal oversight is necessary to assure that that this system works for those most in need of assistance.”

No direct administrative or legislative action is proposed in the report, but Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says he’s “drafting legislation to address many of the troubling findings laid out in this report and will be working with my colleagues to advance it in the next Congress.” 

Brown echoes Perez, saying injuries on the job shouldn’t force workers into poverty.

“But without a basic standard for workers compensation programs, that’s exactly what’s happening in too many states across the country,” Brown adds. 

Another incentive for federal involvement, the report notes, is a shift of billions of dollars in workplace injury costs to taxpayers when state workers’ comp benefits fall short and workers are forced to turn to Medicare and Social Security for treatment and lost wages.

The report lays the groundwork for federal intervention by providing an extensive section detailing the government’s role in promoting national benefits standards in both Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to 1939.

But many in the workers’ comp world consider workplace injury policy and regulation a states’ right and any prospect of a controlling federal role will likely face stiff resistance.

Don’t Believe What Insurance Carriers Say: Workers Do Finish Retraining Programs

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

“He’ll never go back to school.”  “He’ll never complete school.”

As a representative of injured workers, I hear those refrains on repeat from insurance carriers.  And, guess what?  It’s just not true.

Vocational retraining claims straddle the line between being a worker’s advocate and being their social worker.  Under the law, if an injured worker has permanent limitations following an injury that does not allow them to return to their former employer, they can pursue vocational retraining benefits–which includes receiving weekly workers’ compensation benefits (2/3 of weekly wage) along with compensation for meals, parking, books, mileage and tuition.  As an advocate, I’m urging an injured worker to pursue retraining to maximize their benefits under the law.  But more importantly, I put on my “social worker” hat to encourage these workers to return to school as a means to help themselves, their families, and society as a whole.

Restoring an injured workers’ earning capacity serves as the underpinning behind vocational retraining benefits.  Simply put, we want to incentivize working.  If a worker is too injured to return to their old line of work, let’s try to get that worker retrained (presumably to a less physical field) so they can reenter the workplace and be a productive member of the economy.  Social work and advocacy fit together when encouraging a worker to go back to school.

However, far too many insurance carriers scoff at the viability of injured workers returning to school–especially after decades of absence from a school setting.  Even though not everyone is a great school candidate, I’m amazed each and every day watching my clients pursue their retraining with passion and vigor.   I feel pride and vindication when that same client forwards me a copy of their certificate or diploma after completing the program.  That document is immediately forwarded to the insurance carrier.  (I recently forwarded a completed diploma from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and one from Milwaukee Area Technical College).

Most workers just want to be back working.  They want to earn income, provide for their families, and find purpose.  If a work injury knocks them out of their old job, most workers embrace the idea of going back to school and finding a new field that fits their limitations.   Even for individuals with limited eductional backgrounds, most schools provide incredible academic support or remedial programs.  Under Wisconsin law, we can claim vocational retraining benefits for remedial or GED programs, even before a worker begins a formalized program (though consulting with an attorney first is best).

I’d urge insurance carrier to not underestimate the efforts of a motivated worker.

 

What Happens If I Get Hurt at My Second Job?

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

An estimated 7 million Americans work at least two jobs. As the holidays approach, many people will take on holiday jobs as well. Getting hurt at a second job or a holiday job can also create problems at your full-time or regular job. This post will help you navigate some of those issues:

  1. What benefits are you entitled to when you are hurt at a second or holiday job?Your benefits are limited by the wages you are receiving at your second job. You might be able to increase this amount with tips or other perks, but you cannot be paid for wage loss from your first job. If you do have permanent disability, that will be paid based off of a 40-hour week even if you worked part time.

    Receipt of workers’ compensation benefits assumes that you are an actual employee and not an independent contractor. For most relatively low-wage part-time work, this is a fair assumption. But since I wrote my holiday job post back in 2013, there has been the emergence of ride-hailing companies like Uber and other sharing-economy companies that have blurred the lines between employee and independent contractor. If you get hurt working for one of these companies, you should contact an attorney, as the distinction between an employee and independent contractor is very fact specific.

  2. How does a work injury at a second job affect your benefits at your regular job?

     

    Health insurance

    Assuming your other job’s workers’ compensation insurance company picks up your medical benefits, your health insurance from your regular job would not be affected. But in a disputed case, you may have to use health insurance from your regular job to pay for your workers’ compensation injury at your second job. In that case, you should list workers’ compensation from the company where you were hurt as the primary insurance and your private health insurance as your secondary insurance. Also be aware that if you settle your workers’ compensation claim, you may have to pay back your private health insurance. If you go to trial and win an award of medical benefits, your medical providers should refund the private health insurance and reimburse you for out-of-pocket expenses. In a disputed case, you should contact an attorney not only to get benefits but also to health navigate reimbursement.

    Short-term and long-term disability

    Larger employers will often have short-term and long-term disability policies to help employees make up for lost income. These are a mixed bag. Some won’t let you collect benefits for work injuries, some may allow you to double collect workers’ compensation and disability, while others may require you reduce benefits. These policies often have repayment policies if a workers’ compensation case is settled as well. It is helpful to have a lawyer to help you with this process as well.

  3. How does a work injury at a second job affect your employment at your regular job? 
    Assuming your injury requires you to miss time from work, you can claim the Family and Medical Leave Act, assuming your employer has 50 employees, you have worked there for a year, and you have worked there for at least 1,250 hours over the last year. Assuming your employer has 15 employees, your employer would be required to make some reasonable accommodations for your injury under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You should reach out to a lawyer if either employer requires you to return to work without restrictions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated in final regulations implementing the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 that policies that force employee to return to work without restrictions are unlawful. Ironically, if you are hurt at your second job, that employer is probably more likely to return you to work at light duty so that they can avoid or reduce what you are owed in temporary benefits. The new ADA regulations were intended in part to end how work-caused and non-work-caused disabilities are treated.

In Complicated Times, Police Who Risk Their Lives Still Need Support

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

Last week was a very bad one for police officers across the country, starting with the separate police shooting of two unarmed men. These shootings – days apart in different parts of the country – sparked widespread outrage and protests throughout the country. 

While the investigation continues into the circumstances surrounding these civilian shootings, video evidence suggests the outrage over these shootings appears to be justified. The week ended with the assassination of five police officers in Dallas who were providing protection to citizens engaged in a peaceful protest over the shootings of the unarmed men. The gunman indicated he had killed the police officers in retaliation for the shooting deaths. This was the worst loss of life for the police department since September 11, 2001.  Additionally, seven police officers were injured in the attack.

These horrific events highlight the difficult job that police face every day. While not all police officers are perfect (in fact, who amongst us is?), most don’t begin their shifts with the mindset that they are going to kill a civilian. Most see their role as keeping the peace and protecting citizens. They do, however, wonder many times whether they will make it through their shift safely and return home to their loved ones.    Unfortunately, they are not always immune to death and injury.   

As an attorney who has represented many law enforcement officers injured on the job, I know the majority of them receive medical treatment and may have a period of convalescence, but then are able to return to work. However, some sustain serious and career-ending injuries. Most police officers in New York City and Long Island are likely a member of a Civil Service Retirement System. If so, and they become permanently disabled from performing their specific job duties, they may be eligible for a life-long disability pension.

There are many pension systems in the state, all with different applications, rules, procedures, and guidelines. Each disability pension has its own statute of limitations and guidelines for eligibility. There are different pensions available, ranging from one-third to three-quarters. Just because you were injured on the job does not mean you are automatically entitled to the three-quarter pension, which would enable you to receive 75% of your previous year’s earnings. 

Although not always relevant, how police officers are injured on the job can impact whether they are entitled to a three-quarter disability pension. Additionally, just because they were injured while working does not automatically mean they are entitled to a three-quarter disability pension. Factors that get taken into account are issue of causation, medical evidence from the officer’s own doctor, and the retirement system’s medical board. It is not always an easy process for our law enforcement personnel to receive reasonable retirement benefits, but it should be. Day in and day out, they protect the citizens of our cities and our states, putting their own lives at risk simply because they are dressed in blue. 

There is a huge spotlight this week on police, and rightfully so, as there is so much mistrust and anger regarding the recent events. There needs to be an honest, open dialogue where those aggrieved are given the opportunity to be heard without fear of reprisal, just as the police department needs to be given the opportunity to have investigations completed before a rush to judgment. While the majority of police officers are honest and hardworking, those who fail to uphold their oath should be punished.

Police officers are sworn to protect and serve; they run toward trouble when we run away from it. They patrol neighborhoods that are dangerous, riddled with crime, where we are taught to avoid them. They put their lives on the line every day, knowing they might never return to their families. Yes, this has been a very tough week. Let’s hope that future discussions help bridge the gap between our police and the citizens they are sworn to protect.

 

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.

Trumponomics: Impact on Injured Workers and the Middle Class

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

Paul Krugman’s July 4 New York Times Op-Ed column, “Trump, Trade and Workers”, picked apart the economic plans posed by Donald Trump in a campaign speech the prior week.  Mr. Krugman examined “the general thrust of the speech: the candidate’s claim to be on the side of American workers.”  All of the points Mr. Kruman raised are valid.  I wish to add a bit of  perspective, though, from the world of representing injured and disabled workers: an effective safety net is also necessary for a strong middle class.  

Krugman: “What’s important is that voters not mistake tough talk on trade for a pro-worker agenda. No matter what we do on trade, America is going to be mainly a service economy for the foreseeable future. If we want to be a middle-class nation, we need policies that give service-sector workers the essentials of a middle-class life. This means guaranteed health insurance — Obamacare brought insurance to 20 million Americans, but Republicans want to repeal it and also take Medicare away from millions. It means the right of workers to organize and bargain for better wages — which all Republicans oppose. It means adequate support in retirement from Social Security — which Democrats want to expand, but Republicans want to cut and privatize.”

Access to Social Security disability benefits has become difficult to obtain, particularly for younger, middle-aged applicants.  Approval rates for applications for Social Security benefits are down across the country but are staggeringly low in some metropolitan areas, such as Seattle.  State’s have been under enormous pressure to reduce costs in their workers’ compensation systems, as well.

In Washington State, changes put into place including a major “deform” movement in 2011, have saved money, granted, but nearly all of the savings were taken out of the pockets of injured workers through reductions in benefits.  

Implementation of a required Medical Provider Network with increased cost and hassle for physicians has significantly limited access to the best care for Washington’s injured workers.  We went from one of the best states in the union for high-quality workers’ compensation insurance to a place where many workers avoid filing claims and seek care under private insurance to get the care they need, quickly.  

Without sufficient benefit levels and access to quality medical care, families suffer. An injured worker receiving temporary total disability benefits receives compensation while unable to work, typically between 60 – 70% of the pre-injury wage rate although higher wage earners may receive a far smaller percentage if they bump into the cap on benefit levels.  For example, a highly skilled tradesperson, particularly if in a union, may receive compensation at 40 – 50% of pre-injury levels.  It’s hard to maintain a middle-class lifestyle on half of your pay, and even harder if it takes months to get authorization for surgery – the road to recovery can be quite long and bumpy.

Washington’s Retro Group program, where employers can reduce premium costs by opting to pay claim costs dollar-for-dollar and can receive refunds of premiums paid if their costs are lower, have inserted a profit motive into what used to be a strong system where all workers and employers shared the cost of all injuries, spreading the burden out and providing predictable coverage expenses.  With the Retro Program, employers have a vested interest in denying coverage, reducing benefits, denying treatment – every penny saved goes right back into their pocket.  It’s a whole new contentious game.  Note that the workers, who in Washington pay ½ of the premiums charged to employers, never get a refund if claim costs are low.  It is unfair, lopsided and the fights that ensue between workers and employers over coverage are handled by State agencies, State  employees, adding to the State’s expense of running the overall workers’ compensation system and eating into the “savings” gained by the reform efforts.

Workers’ compensation is intended to provide protections to those injured on the job for the purpose of ensuring a speedy recovery and return to employment, hopefully with limited financial impact to the worker and their family.  When done right, the protections can save an injured worker from financial ruin.  Implemented poorly, the system can add to the physical, emotional and financial pain after an injury.

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