Category Archives: Workers’ Compensation

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.

Opioid Task Force, Recent Studies, and CDC Opioid Recommendations

Today’s post comes from guest author Kristina Brown Thompson, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

The North Carolina Industrial Commission recently joined many other states (i.e. Massachusetts) in tackling the issue of opioids in the workers’ compensation cases by creating a Workers’ Compensation Opioid Task Force. The goal of the task force is to “study and recommend solutions for the problems arising from the intersection of the opioid epidemic and related issues in workers’ compensation claims.” According to the Chair, “[o]pioid misuse and addiction are a major public health crisis in this state.” 

As of last June, a study by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) noted “noticeable decreases in the amount of opioids prescribed per workers’ compensation claim.” From 2012 – 2014, “the amount of opioids received by injured workers decreased.” In particular, there were “significant reductions in the range of 20 to 31 percent” in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas. 

Additionally last March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new recommendations for prescribing opioid medications for chronic pain “in response to an epidemic of prescription opioid overdose, which CDC says has been fueled by a quadrupling of sales of opioids since 1999.” 

Currently, the CDC’s recommendations for prescribing opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer, palliative, and end-of-life care will likely follow these steps:

1.  Non-medication therapy / non-opioid will be preferred for chronic pain.

2.  Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals and consider how therapy will be discontinued if benefits do not outweigh risks.

3.  Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy. 

Agriculture Labor Law Training Offered by WA Dept. of Labor and Industries

The WA Department of Labor and Industries has announced labor law training for employers in April, including as a topic “workers’ compensation claims.” While this notice of training is directed to employers that hire migrant workers under H-2A visas, it is interesting to note that Washington State provides workers’ compensation coverage to injured workers regardless of their immigration status.  Non-documented injured workers receive the full complement of benefits under our system, although with wrinkles that can be manipulated by the employer or claims manager to limit benefits. 

The full text of the training announcement follows:

Agricultural supervisors and crew bosses who have the right training play an important role in ensuring that employers who hire migrant, seasonal and foreign workers with H-2A visas are following the law.

Training on state and federal labor laws will be offered in Spanish and English at labor laws forums in Yakima on April 26 and Wenatchee on April 27.

The forums are sponsored by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, the Washington Employment Security Department and the U. S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.

The free half-day trainings cover wage and hour requirements, workplace safety and health regulations, transportation and housing, workers’ compensation claims and more.

Space is limited, so preregistration is recommended. For more information or to register, go to:

April 26 – Yakima – Spanish

April 26 –Yakima – English 

April 27 – Wenatchee- Spanish

April 27 – Wenatchee – English 

For more information, contact Fabiola Gonzalez at 360-902-5419.

 

Photo credit: jaci XIII via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Age Discrimination Claims in Workers’ Compensation Settlements?

Today’s post comes from guest author Anthony L. Lucas, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

When an employee settles a workers’ compensation claim, the employer often wants to terminate the employee and is cautious because of potential age discrimination. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. 621 et seq. (2015), prohibits companies with 20 or more employees from discriminating against a person (40 years of age or older) because of his or her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training.

An individual who has been discriminated against because of his or her age may be entitled to back pay, reinstatement, hiring, promotion, front pay, liquidated damages, and court costs and attorney fees.

To avoid potential discrimination claims after a workers’ compensation settlement, the employer often seeks an ADEA waiver at the same time. For an ADEA waiver to be enforceable, it must:

  • Be in writing and understandable;

  • Specifically refer to ADEA rights or claims;

  • Not waive an individual’s future rights or claims;

  • Be in exchange for valuable consideration in addition to anything of value to which the individuals is already entitled;

  • Advise the individual to consult with an attorney before signing the waiver;

  • Provide the individual with a certain amount of time to consider the agreement:

    • 21 days for individual agreements

    • 45 days for group waiver agreements

    • A “reasonable” amount of time for settlements of ADEA claims

  • Provide a period of at least 7 days following the execution of the agreement, in which the agreement is not effective or enforceable, in which the individual may revoke the agreement.

Some termination agreements may not be enforceable, and the individual may have a valid claim to pursue under the ADEA.

A Dismantling of the Grand Bargain That Created Workers’ Compensation

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

This week marks the official start of the holiday season. It is a time for family and loved ones, and a time to reflect on the blessings that we have received in our lives. This week marks the countdown to a number of holidays including Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa. Unfortunately for some people, however, the holiday season is fraught with anxiety, depression, illness and injury. Many people who sustain work-related injuries find that without their weekly salary, the holidays are a stark reminder of how their lives have changed dramatically. The inability to provide for even the basic necessities, let alone splurge on holiday presents, is a prescription for depression.

The Grand Bargain Premise of Workers’ Compensation laws in this country is that the employer, through their insurance carrier, is responsible to pay for injured workers’ medical treatment, lost wages, and permanent disability in exchange for injured workers giving up their rights to sue their employers for negligence. During the last couple of decades, Workers’ Compensation benefits have been under the continuous scrutiny of the Business Council, which has been alleging that the cost of benefits to injured workers is at the root of their increase in costs and reduction in profits.

However, a report from the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) indicates otherwise. Benefits as a percent of payroll declined in 46 states between 2010 and 2014, continuing a national trend in lower benefits relative to payroll that began in the 1990s. Costs to employers, on the other hand, continue to climb. Between 2010 and 2014, employer costs associated with Workers’ Compensation – such as insurance premiums, reimbursement payments, and administrative costs – grew at a rate nearly five times faster than benefits. Instead of using employers’ money to provide benefits for injured workers, insurance companies pay a host of businesses, including insurance medical examiners, nurse case managers, vocational rehabilitation companies and defense counsel, all of which profit from the system at the expense of workers and reap record profits for themselves. Meanwhile, the insurance industry and the Business Council falsely blame the claims of disabled workers so they can continue to increase profits by slashing benefits and shifting costs to taxpayer-funded programs instead of employer-paid insurance.

Benefits in New York have decreased under the current Workers’ Compensation system. The changes in the law in 2007 allowed higher wage earners to benefit in the short term as the amount of their weekly benefits has increased. However, these benefits are only available for a fixed period of time. If injured workers are able to return to work after a short period of lost time and a limited period of medical treatment, then some may say the system is a success. Unfortunately for many severely-injured high and low wage earners, the Grand Bargain wasn’t so grand. Medical providers’ hands are tied by Medical Treatment guidelines that limit the amount of treatment authorized based upon “best practices” or cookie cutter treatment, as opposed to what is recommended by the treating doctor. Now there is the prospect of limiting prescription medications as well, all in the name of cost reduction.

The reduction of medical treatment based on the treatment guidelines to injured workers should not imply they are fully recovered. Also, they don’t all return to work once they reach their indemnity cap. The cost of providing monetary benefits and medical treatment are shifted to the taxpayers to pick up the tab. Injured workers don’t expect that the very act of working will forever alter their lives in a negative way. Workers’ Compensation benefits are not a charitable donation, but an entitlement based upon a compromise between workers and their employers. Unfortunately, it is clear that these benefits have been gradually eroded. We should not allow any legislation that further erodes these benefits. While the holidays will continue to bring depression and despair for some injured workers, it should not be as a result of our treatment of them afterward.

 

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.

WA DLI Begins Employer First Contact Call Pilot

As part of the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee (JLARC) implementation L&I received approval from the Legislature to hire additional account managers to increase capacity for first calls to employers and to provide loss control support. The Employer Services Early Contact Team was formed in October 2016. This team is currently staffed with 4 account managers with the plan to hire 4 additional account managers in February 2017. 

The Early Contact Team began the Employer First Contact Call Pilot on Tuesday, December 27th. As a pilot, they started by calling on a small number of potential time-loss claims and plan to gradually expand over time. 

The Early Contact Team will ask the following questions of the employer: 

  • What was the workers’ last day worked? 
  • Has the worker returned to work? Or, is there a planned returned to work date? 
  • Is light duty available? 
  • Will the worker be kept on salary? 
  • Are the wages and health care benefits the worker listed on the ROA correct? 

The Early Contact Team will educate employers on: 

  • The claim free discount, if the employer has one. 
  • Long-term impacts of time-loss on the firm’s experience factor. 
  • The benefits of light duty jobs and options to obtain cost reimbursements through the Washington Stay at Work Program. 
  • Early return-to-work assistance to develop light duty jobs consistent with the worker’s restrictions. 
  • Risk management services or a safety and health consultation for accident prevention. 

The Early Contact Team will make referrals if indicated for: 

  • Washington Stay at Work Program 
  • Early Return to Work (ERTW) Services 
  • Risk Management Services 
  • Safety and Health Consultation Services 
  • Ergonomic Evaluations 

This means the Early Contact Team will be the first to contact employers, rather than the claim manager, in some instances. As a future phase of implementing the JLARC recommendations, we will improve the speed of claim manager first contacts on claims at risk of long-term disability and equip them with the tools to help partner with employers to reduce this risk. 

 

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Why Immigration Policy Changes Will Probably Impact Workers Compensation

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

In theory, the changes to immigration policy proposed by President Trump shouldn’t impact workers compensation in Nebraska. Workers compensation laws are state laws and Nebraska, like most states, awards workers compensation benefits regardless of immigration status.

But theory is one things and reality is another.

Mike Elk of Payday Report recently ran an article detailing that workplace deaths among Latinos were the highest in 2015 than they had been since 2007. This spike was attributed in part to aggressive immigration enforcement by the Obama administration which immigrant advocates believed made workers afraid to speak out about working conditions over fear of deportation.

During the Obama administration tougher immigration policies were at least coupled with tougher and even innovative workplace safety enforcement by OSHA. In the Trump era, workplace safety enforcement is expected to be curtailed and new OSHA rules are poised to be rolled back.

Immigration and workers compensation is often thought of in the context of Mexicans and central Americans working in industries like meatpacking and construction. This is a misconception, the meatpacking industry in Nebraska and elsewhere employs an uncounted but significant number of Somali workers. Somalis are one of seven nationalities banned from entering the United States under President Trump’s order. Ironically Somalis were recruited heavily into meatpacking work after raids during the Bush administration lead to the deportation of Latino meatpacking workers. Somalis had refugee status so there were few questions about their immigration status or eligibility to work legally. Under the new executive order, their immigration status is less secure and they may be less likely to speak out about working conditions.

A smaller but growing number of Cubans are coming to Nebraska for meatpacking work as well. Like Somalis, Cubans are deemed to be refugees so their ability to work lawfully is not a question for employers. However in the waning days of Obama administration, President Obama ended automatic refugee status for Cubans in an effort to normalize relationship with the Castro regime. There was little public outcry over this order like there was for the so-called Muslim Ban. However because of an executive order, Cuban nationals working in Nebraska may be less inclined to speak out about working conditions or claim workers compensation benefits due to newfound uncertainty over their immigration status.

Chemical Exposure in Chicken Plants

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

Several members of Congress have written to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell regarding the danger of the chemical PAA, which is used to sanitize chickens in poultry plants.

According to The Pump Handle blog written by occupational health expert Celeste Monforton, the increase in the use of PAA is linked to the Department of Agriculture’s “modernized inspection” system. Though meatpacking is well known for the prevalence of musculoskeletal injuries, chemical exposure is a less well-known, but similarly serious hazard, to meatpacking workers, which has been recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The hazards of chemical exposure are not limited to meat-processing workers. Chemical exposure fatalities are too common in rural America. Recently, a worker on an industrial cleaning crew in Beatrice, Nebraska, was killed from inhaling industrial cleaning chemicals. In October, a resident of northeast Nebraska was killed after inhaling chemicals from a leak in anhydrous ammonia pipeline. That same month, 125 residents of Atchison, Kansas, sought treatment for inhalation of chlorine gas from an explosion at a distiller.

While chemical exposure can often result in sudden death, ongoing exposure to chemicals can also create injuries that may not be apparent for years after the exposure. Unfortunately, Nebraska limits the ability of workers to recover for such injuries.

The letter about the hazards of PAA was written to outgoing cabinet members. The new Trump administration is expected to have a less-aggressive approach toward regulating the workplace. Hopefully the new administration will take the threat posed by hazardous chemicals in the workplace seriously.

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. 

 

WA Workers’ Comp Rates for 2017 will Increase <1 percent

The average premium for workers’ compensation coverage in Washington will go up less than 1 percent in 2017. On November 30th, the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) announced the rate will rise by an average of 0.7 percent next year.

The 2017 increase will cost employers on average about $10 more a year per employee. Most workers will not see an increase in what they pay.

Employers and workers around Washington pay into the workers’ comp system so they’re covered if someone suffers a work-related injury or illness. Last year, L&I covered nearly 93,000 claims in our state.

“We’ve improved the support we provide to injured workers, and I’m pleased to say we’re seeing tangible, positive results,” said L&I Director Joel Sacks.“Injured workers are able to stay at work or return to work faster, and the number of workers on long-term disability is dropping. That’s good for employees and employers, and it helps us hold down costs.”

L&I sets rates every fall for the following year. Workers’ compensation premiums help pay for wage and disability benefits, as well as medical treatment of injuries and illnesses. They also provide a safety net to make sure the system is prepared for the unexpected.

There are several factors that help determine rates, including expected workers’ compensation payouts, the size of the reserve fund, wage inflation and other financial indicators. Over the past six years, the average annual workers’ compensation rate increase has been just over 1 percent.

Helping workers recover and reducing costs

Reducing costs of the workers’ compensation system helps keep premium rates steady and predictable. Over the last three years, L&I’s work to promote injury prevention, provide injured workers vocational services, ensure quality health care and support employers has helped reduce projected long-term costs by more than $700 million.

In September, L&I proposed the 0.7 percent rate increase and then took public input on the plan. The agency held public hearings around the state and also took comments online and by mail before making the final decision. 

The new rates take effect January 1. There’s more information at www.Lni.wa.gov/Rates.

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Workers’ Comp Facts:

  • L&I is the state’s primary workers’ compensation insurance provider, covering about 2.6 million workers and more than 170,000 employers.
  • An individual employer’s actual rate change may vary depending on that employer’s industry and history of claims that result in wage replacement and/or disability benefits.
  • More than 90,000 claims are accepted each year through the Washington State Workers’ Compensation State Fund. 

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