Category Archives: Legislation

MORE changes to Work Comp: Elimination of Court Reporters & Appeals Commission?

Budget Bill Proposes Eliminating Court Reporters

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

Wisconsin’s Governor recently proposed significant changes to Wisconsin’s best-in-nation worker’s compensation system.  For the second budget cycle in a row, the Governor’s Budget Bill wants to drastically change the structure of worker’s compensation cases.  

The Budget Bill, revealed on February 8, 2017, proposes two main changes : (1) the elimination of court reporters in litigated worker’s compensation trials; and (2) the elimination of the independent body that reviews judge decisions.  

A base level concern exists, again, because these proposals were made outside the stabilizing force of the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council.   As mentioned at length in this forum, the Advisory Council, with its balanced membership of labor and management representatives, has produced reasoned, incremental changes historically–creating a beneficial system for all stakeholders.  Hopefully the Advisory Council will weigh in on the potential effects of the unveiled Budget Bill proposals.

Each of the proposals significantly impact the state’s work comp system:

Elimination of Court Reporters:

The Budget proposes eliminating the use of statutorily-required stenographic court reporters in worker’s compensation trials.  The specific proposal is to eliminate necessary court reporters (who ensure decorum in the court room, properly manage exhibits, make sure parties do not talk over each other, and create an accurate and legitimate transcript) in exchange for some type of ill-defined audio recording equipment.

Employers and carriers in our state—facing six to seven figure exposures—will have concerns about facing such liability based on questionable audio technology.  Imagine if at a critical point in trial, a witness talks to softly or inaudibly, resulting in a blank area in the transcript.  No stakeholder wants this, and our live court reporters ensure that it does not.  

Also, the circuit court (and further appellate courts) want an accurate, undisputed transcript of the lower trial proceedings.   If the audio is poor, unclear or inaccurate, we may be forced to re-litigate the trial.  A redo will increase system costs.  Further, if court reporters are eliminated, the private parties will bear the costs by hiring their own court reporters.  We then may face disputes about the “real” transcript between the state’s audio recording (which will need to be transcribed for appeals) and the privately-hired court reporter transcript.  

Wisconsin is not alone in its use of court reporters in worker’s compensation trials, as an informal poll revealed the use of court reporters in IN, PA, CT, IA, NC, MT, NE, WY, SC, CA, MA, GA, KS, IL, LA, NY, WA…and the list goes on.

Near universal opposition exists to this unnecessary proposal to eliminate live court reporters.  The State Bar litigation section board voted unanimously to oppose this proposal.  Moreover, all of the three main groups of attorneys that represent clients in worker’s compensation proceedings oppose this proposal.   The Wisconsin Defense Counsel (defense attorneys), the Wisconsin Association of Justice (injured worker attorneys), and the Wisconsin Association of Workers’ Compensation Attorneys (bi-partisan group) jointly drafted a letter to the Governor voicing their opposition.    

All parties to litigation want a fair and accurate depiction of the trial proceedings, and court reporters help secure that justice.  This proposal faces stiff opposition.

Elimination of the Appeals Commission

Traditionally, the Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC) is an independent body of three political appointees that rule on worker’s compensation, unemployment, and equal rights appeals.  The cases are litigated in front of administrative law judges and then the appeal is to LIRC, who have a virtual de novo review.  The appeal from LIRC is direct to circuit court, which has a very deferential standard and will uphold the LIRC decision if there is any “credible and substantial evidence.”  Barring a legal issue, the circuit court upholds the factual and credibility findings of LIRC.  

LIRC has been in existence in some form since the inception of the worker’s compensation act in 1911.  LIRC actually serves to define much of the worker’s compensation case law—for over one hundred years.  When I look at our treatise, I’d guess 80% of the cited cases are LIRC cases.  Judges use the LIRC decisions in making determinations.

The current Budget proposal is the complete elimination of LIRC.  However, as opposed to a direct appeal from a judge determination to circuit court, the proposal is to substitute the Division Administrator for LIRC.  Thus, litigants would trial cases to the administrative law judge, with an appeal to the state Division of Hearings and Appeals Administrator (currently Brian Hayes) as the intermediate level of appeal.  Appeal from the Administrator’s decision would be to circuit court–with no apparent change in the standard of review by circuit court.

The upshot is to give much authority and discretion back to the actual administrative law judges–the ones who actually observed the witness and heard the evidence.  One of the statutory proposals indicates that the “findings of fact” by the judge “shall, in the absence of fraud, be conclusive.” That appears to give even less discretion to the Administrator’s ability to review judge decisions.

There is much ambiguity about the reasoning behind these proposals, as well as the potential impact.  I’ve already heard from a number of individuals that the proposal comes from issues within the unemployment insurance arena (and unemployment appeals fill up the majority of LIRC’s docket).  If true, worker’s compensation appeals are being swept up with the issues within unemployment.

However, if implemented, the practical effects are drastic.  Presumably, the Division Administrator would likely be more deferential to the sitting administrative law judges (i.e., approve more ALJ decisions) and probably produce a faster appeal turnaround time than the current LIRC process.   The catch is that it remains unknown how the Adminstrator would handle the influx of worker’s compensation appeals. Would there need to be additional staff?  (if so, budgetary costs need to be considered).  If no new staff, the simple time constraints lead to the likelihood of rubberstamping judge determinations.   

In the future though, the Administrator position changes.  Future appointees could have their own political proclivities that could impact the system.  Also, the proposal may have just eliminated 100 years of case law as guidance for future judicial determinations.  The budget is devoid of what happens to the precedential value of past LIRC decisions.  

Accordingly, further details really need to be revealed about the proposed plan before the stakeholders can weigh in.

One further item is known, based on the intersection of the two proposals.  If the system eliminates LIRC and provides more deference to the underlying judge determination, the value of court reporters increases exponentially.  If the judge factual determination is conclusive, a reviewing circuit court certainly wants an accurate, credible, and decipherable transript of those all-important findings.  

We will explore the further Budget process and these proposals as they progress…

For further information:

The full statutory text of the Budget Bill (2017 Assembly Bill 64/ 2017 Senate Bill 30) can be found here, with a summary found here.

Removing The Safety Net: A National Trend Of Benefit Reductions For Injured Workers

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

Benefits for injured workers continue to be under attack throughout the country. In New York, there have been a number of changes in the last decade, all in the name of reform. These reforms were encouraging at first as they increased the weekly benefits for some higher wage-earning injured workers for the first time in decades. They also created medical treatment guidelines under the guise of allowing injured workers to obtain pre-approval on certain medical treatments and procedures. 

Unfortunately, the changes also resulted in reduction of benefits for many injured workers. Monetary benefits were capped, so injured workers deemed partially disabled could only receive a certain number of weeks of benefits regardless of their ability to return to their pre-injury jobs. The determination of the degree of disability has become a battle involving multiple, lengthy depositions of medical witnesses where the outcome is how long injured workers get wage replacement or whether they receive lifetime benefits. The criteria is not whether injured workers can return to their prior employment, but whether they are capable of performing any work at all, regardless of their past job experience or education. The battle is not limited to the amount of weeks of benefits injured workers can receive, however. The medical treatment guidelines, touted as getting injured workers prompt medical treatment, discounts the fact that if the requested treatment is not listed within the guidelines, it is denied and the burden is placed upon injured workers and their treating doctors to prove the requested treatment is necessary.

Other changes designed to cut administrative costs and court personnel include reducing the number of hearings held, thereby denying injured workers due process. There also has been a reduction in the number of presiding judges, and in many hearing locations the judges are not even at the site but are conducting hearings through video conferencing. At the end of October, the Board announced a new procedure authorizing the insurance carrier to request a hearing on whether injured workers should be weaned off of opioids that are used by many medical providers to treat chronic pain. While everyone would agree that the misuse of prescription pain medication is an epidemic in this country, many question whether the insurance industry really has the injured workers’ best interest at heart.    

As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 26 years, I have seen many workers successfully transition from injured worker back into the labor market. It is very encouraging to note that for many people the system has worked. They receive their treatment, which may involve physical therapy, surgery, pain management, prescription therapy, or whatever else their treating physician recommends. They are paid a portion of their prior income and after a period of convalescence, they are able to return to work. Some injured workers, however, are not so lucky. The decisions about what happens to those unable to work have been left to those who seem to care more about business and insurance industry profits. 

Just about one year ago, 14 people were killed and 22 more injured when ISIS-inspired terrorists went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California. The nation and the world were horrified to hear about this tragedy and the story was in the news for many weeks. Now a year has gone by and many of the survivors have complained about treatment being denied and prescription medication being cut off.  While many injuries happen quietly without the headlines seen in the California attack, there are many similarities. It seems that when an initial injury occurs, there are many good protections and benefits in place. However, as time goes on and costs increase, injured workers are looked upon as enemies to defeat or to forget about. Unfortunately for injured workers and their families, they don’t have this luxury and they don’t have the means to fight.

Most people don’t think it will ever happen to them. That is what most of my clients have thought as well.

 

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. 

 

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.

Let OSHA Do Its Job

OSHA is being prevented from fulfilling its mission.

Today’s post comes from guest author Paul McAndrew, from the Paul McAndrew Law Firm.

In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety & Health Act (the Act), which created the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Among other things, the Act requires every employer to provide a safe workplace. To help employers reach this goal, OSHA promulgated hundreds of rules in the decade after it was created. OSHA’s rulemaking process has, however, slowed to a trickle since then.  

While the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health recently identified over 600 toxic chemicals to which workers are exposed, in the last 16 years OSHA has added only two toxic chemicals to its list of regulated chemicals. This is because Congress, Presidents and the courts have hamstrung OSHA. For example, in March 2001 the Bush Administration and a Republican Congress effectively abolished OSHA’s ergonomics rule, a rule the agency had worked on for many years. 

These delays and inactions have caused more than 100,000 avoidable workplace injuries and illnesses.

These delays and inactions have caused more than 100,000 avoidable workplace injuries and illnesses. Workers are being injured and killed by known hazardous circumstances and OSHA can’t act.

Congress and the President need to break this logjam – we need to free OSHA to do its job of safeguarding workers.

Hidden Fees In North Carolina

NBC Nightly News reported on December 9, 2015 that North Carolina is one of the worst states when it comes to charging hidden fees for traffic tickets. The segment reported that hidden fees in NC increased an original traffic ticket of $30 over seven fold to $218. While the State has to find funding for the many services they provide that are not profitable, NBC News reported that some of these “hidden fees” pay partly for court costs. But there might be more appropriate places to assess fines to cover court costs.

In 2014 the UNC School of Government wrote a blog based on the Court of Appeals decision in Tyll v. Berry, stating that a party held in civil contempt for failing to obey a court order can be assessed a fine, not just imprisonment.  However, the State Legislature just passed a law clarifying that when someone is found to be in civil contempt a monetary fine is not an appropriate remedy.

Seems to me that a fine is exactly the appropriate remedy when a party fails to obey a court order and that such a fine, payable to the court rather than the opposing party, could be a valuable source of funding for court-related costs. Fines for civil contempt could also alleviate some of the pressure to assess large “hidden fees” for minor traffic violations.  

Read more here: http://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/thought-you-understood-contempt-think-again/

Call “Reform” What It Is: Death By A Thousand Cuts For Workers’ Rights

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

This week I attended the 20th anniversary of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (WILG) in Chicago. I am a proud past president of this group – the only national Workers’ Compensation bar association dedicated to representing injured workers.  

As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 25 years, I have seen their rights and benefits shrink under the guise of “reform”. After the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which killed almost 150 women and girls, workplace safety and Workers’ Compensation laws were enacted. For the next half century or so, many protections and safeguards were implemented. However, many of these reforms were not sufficient, and in 1972, the National Commission on State Workmen’s Compensation Laws, appointed by then-President Nixon, issued a report noting that state Workers’ Compensation laws were neither adequate nor equitable. This led to a decade when most states significantly improved their laws. 

Unfortunately, there has once more been a steady decline in benefits to injured workers, again under the guise of reform. One major argument is that many workers are faking their injuries or they just want to take time off from work. There was even a recent ad campaign in which a young girl was crying because her father was going to jail for faking an injury. Workers’ Compensation fraud does exist, but the high cost of insurance fraud is not as a result of workers committing fraud.

A colleague of mine compiled a list of the top 10 Workers’ Compensation fraud cases in 2014 in which he noted that the top 10 claims of fraud cost taxpayers well more than $75 million dollars with $450,000 of the total amount resulting from a worker committing insurance fraud. That leaves $74.8 million as a result of non-employee fraud, including overbilling and misclassification of workers. We are told that insurance costs are too high; yet, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) in 2014, estimates show that private Workers’ Compensation carriers will have pulled in $39.3 billion in written premiums, the highest since they began keeping data in 1990. More premiums result in higher net profits. Despite this, many states have implemented changes in their Workers’ Compensation systems aimed at reducing costs to the employer. The end results, however, is that fewer benefits are given to the injured worker and more profits go to the insurance companies.

In New York, one of the reform measures increased the amount of money per week to injured workers but limited the amount of weeks they can receive these benefits with the idea that they will return to work once their benefits run out. Additionally, limitations have been placed on the amount and types of treatment that injured workers may receive. Again, this is with the notion that once treatment ends, injured workers miraculously are healed and will not need additional treatment. In reality, those injured who can’t return to work receive benefits from other sources from state and federal governments at the taxpayer’s expense.  This is what is known as cost shifting, as those really responsible to pay for benefits – the insurance companies who collect the premiums from the employers – have no further liability. The reformers of 100 years ago would be appalled at what is happening to injured workers and their families today. It is time that those who are generating profits at the expense of injured workers do what is fair and just – provide prompt medical care and wage replacement to injured workers for as long as they are unable to work.

To stay on top of important Workers’ Compensation happenings, please visit the Facebook page of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP and “Like Us.” That way you will receive the latest news on your daily feed.

 

 

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.

 

States with Opt-Out Workers’ Comp System are Strict on Injured Workers

Dallas attorney Bill Minick (Photo credit Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica)

Texas and Oklahoma have both adopted an “opt-out” system for Workers’ Compensation. ProPublica along with NPR recently published an in-depth look at the results in these two states. Under this system, employers can opt-out of state mandated workers’ compensation insurance by creating their own policy for injured workers. These employer-written policies give employers 100% control over the terms, the benefits, and even settlements.

Specifically, ProPublica and NPR found that these employer-created policies generally have strict 24-hour reporting requirements or even require an injury to be reported by the end of a shift. This means, if an employee does not report their injury within their shift, or within 24 hours, they are prevented from bringing a claim at all. Period. End of discussion. Employers can also dictate how much benefits will be paid and some employers have capped death benefits for employees who are killed at work at $250,000. Whereas under the State Workers’ Compensation system, if a deceased worker leaves behind minor children, they will continue to receive benefits until they turn 18 (which could easily end up being well over $250,000 when you factor in lost wages until the worker would have been 65). This is potentially detrimental to a young widow or widower who is left with very young children.

Yesterday we tweeted a recent ABC news article that a worker was killed when he fell at a construction site in Charlotte. I’d hate to think that his or her family would be limited to recovering only $250,000 in the event the worker left behind dependent family members and young children. Money can’t begin to replace someone who is lost to us too early from an accident at work, but $250,000 would hardly cover a lifetime of income that the family will lose, especially if young children are left behind.

 

To read more on how the Opt-Out system is affecting injured workers in Texas and Oklahoma, go to: ProPublica: Inside Corporate America’s Campaign to Ditch Workers’ Comp.