Category Archives: Government

Sick Leave Should Be Accessible to All

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Amid the debate about flu and immunizations and preventable diseases lurks a societal problem that’s getting more attention lately and directly affects the spread of those medical crises: paid sick leave for employees.

Although discussing the consequences of Ebola may be interesting, many people in the United States, including Nebraska and Iowa, are living with the consequences of pertussis (whooping cough), a rampant flu season, and measles outbreaks.

This blog has featured this subject in the past, almost exactly two years ago, when there was a flu epidemic. It was argued then, in one of the firm’s more popular blog posts, that sick people should not be forced to work and spread their germs to their co-workers and customers, in addition that working while sick tends to make people even more ill. Not having sick leave available to take becomes a public health and societal risk. In addition, not being able to provide care for sick children or loved ones results in family struggles and workers worrying, rightfully so, while they should be focused on work at work.

The issue is also affecting children, especially those who are low-income, according to the 2014 Kids Count Report in Nebraska.

A recent Marketplace Morning Report article highlighted the need for policy change through the Healthy Families Act “that would guarantee workers could earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year.” For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is quoted in the story that “24 percent” of those in the restaurant industry and “47 percent of retail workers get paid sick leave.” It also shares the economic burden of the results of people who don’t get paid sick leave coming to work sick. “Underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication is known as ‘presenteeism.’” Sickness and presenteeism costs more than $375 billion a year, according to the article.

Esther Cepeda also recently addressed both paid sick leave and presenteeism in a column: “Working while sick even when you can have the time off is a thing. Many workers take great pride in coming to work ill, and there are a fair number of their colleagues who wish they’d stop.”

Although it may be a pretty big challenge in some industries to provide paid sick time, Ms. Cepeda argues that those are the most important industries to have it, as was also argued in the firm’s flu blog post from 2013.

“Food service aside, there are any number of jobs – most of them low-wage, part-time service jobs – where you don’t want the worker to be miserably sick or mentally checked out, worried about their sick loved one, because they can’t afford to call off work and lose the pay or possibly the job.”

Also important to note, being “checked out” can lead to safety incidents and workers’ compensation claims, and having employees mired in presenteeism just isn’t good for anyone.

So as the article in this link mentions, I think it’s very important for both workers and employers to consider the importance of quality of life considerations: keeping healthy people from being exposed to sickness and supporting sick people (or people with sick loved ones) by giving them the chance to stay home and still get paid so they can focus on becoming healthy people again.

Because as Ms. Cepeda argues, it benefits all for people to be as healthy as possible.

“Those of us who have the choice or flexibility to take an available sick day must speak up for those who are penalized for life’s inevitable speed bumps. It’s ultimately in our own best interest.”

ABLE Act Set to Help Save for Child’s Disability-related Expenses

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081028-N-3173B-027The Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE) was recently passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.

This legislation matters to us because some clients may have a child or children who qualify for an ABLE account.

“The ABLE Act aims to provide families of a severely disabled child with some peace of mind by allowing them to save for their child’s long-term disability expenses in the same way that families of able bodied children can currently save for college through popular 529 investment plans,” according to information on North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr’s website (link is below).

There are a lot of details available on the internet about the act, and some of it is conflicting, as “passage of legislation is a result of a series of compromises,” as noted in the National Down Syndrome Society’s (NDSS) excellent resource article that is linked to below.

One of those limitations is that a person must have a qualified disability diagnosed before turning 26 to have an ABLE account, according to Sen. Burr’s website.

Here are some more links with information that I thought would be most helpful to those who are looking for more details to see if the act’s passage can help a loved one.

This link has detailed information about the act, including its text and history, from Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/647 H.R.647 – 113th Congress (2013-2014): ABLE Act of 2014 | Congress.gov | Library of Congress

Sen. Burr was a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Burr’s link has information that includes details on who is eligible for an ABLE account and what are considered “qualified disability expenses.” http://www.burr.senate.gov/public/_files/ABLE%20Act%20Summary%20–%20NH%2011-19.pdf

“ABLE accounts would be a savings vehicle for disability-related expenses that will supplement, but not supplant, benefits provided through private insurances, the Medicaid program, the supplemental security income program, the beneficiary’s employment, and other sources,” according to the site above.

Via the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS): Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act http://www.ndss.org/Advocacy/Legislative-Agenda/Creating-an-Economic-Future-for-Individuals-with-Down-Syndrome/Achieving-a-Better-of-Life-Experience-ABLE-Act/

I thought the section of “10 Things You Must Know” was most helpful, with more details about the who, what, when, where and why of the accounts.

Via the National Association of Injured and Disabled Workers (NAIDW):  Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act https://www.naidw.org/groups/viewdiscussion/1770-achieving-a-better-life-experience-able-act?groupid=144

Via disabilityscoop: The Premier Source for Developmental Disability News: Obama Signs ABLE Act http://www.disabilityscoop.com/2014/12/22/obama-signs-able-act/19935/

“People with disabilities may be able to start opening ABLE accounts as soon as 2015. However, some hurdles remain. While the new law alters federal rules to allow for ABLE accounts, each state must now put regulations in place — much as they have done for other types of 529 plans — so that financial institutions can make the new offering available,” according to the site above.

As is evident from the links above, more groundwork needs to be done to implement the law, so I would encourage those with questions to learn more about the accounts by contacting an accountant or a lawyer who is an expert in life care and special needs.

So if you, a loved one, and/or a friend, are receiving workers’ compensation benefits, but are worried about losing necessary current benefits for your disabled child because of limitations in what you can save or spend, an ABLE account may be just the thing for your situation.

Struck-by Vehicle Incidents: OSHA’s Regional Emphasis Program for Region 7

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, has announced via news release that it’s continuing its Regional Emphasis Program in Region 7 for struck-by vehicle incidents.

As was mentioned in a recent blog post, Region 7 includes the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

Here is some additional information from the news release:

Over fiscal years 2008 through March 2013, “15 percent of all workplace fatalities investigated by the Kansas City Office … have involved vehicle accidents that struck employees in the workplace,” and there were 37 vehicle-related fatal incidents. The operator was the victim 43 percent of the time, while 57 percent of the time, the vehicle struck another worker. In addition, “seventy percent of the fatal incidents occurred at general industry work sites, while 24 percent happened in construction.”

Vehicles involved include “conventional vehicles, forklifts, semi-trucks and other moving industrial equipment” like cranes and yard trucks and cover the “construction, general and maritime industries.”

OSHA does inspections to follow up on complaints and referrals they get about the vehicles, and the news release also included a link that addresses struck-by hazards, which can be found here.

OSHA’s Region 7 Busy in September

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The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is frequently referred to as OSHA.

OSHA’s Region 7 covers Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, although Iowa operates its “own OSHA-approved job safety and health programs and cover state and local government workers as well as private sector workers.” In addition, the approved program “must have standards that are identical to, or at least as effective as, the federal OSHA standards,” according to an OSHA web page. The region has had a busy month releasing the results of investigations and resulting fines, so I thought it would be interesting to make this blog post a roundup of the results, which were gleaned from OSHA news releases, found at the web page for Region 7.

Although the proposed fines unfortunately do not reflect the severity of some of the injuries, OSHA’s job is not to punish businesses for injured workers, but for unsafe working conditions. That also means that fines are often decreased or eliminated when the hazard in the workplace is fixed. However, OSHA investigating a business based on an accident can often help an injured person’s workers’ compensation case.

  1. Date and location: Sept. 2, McCool Junction, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $84,000

    Number of citations for safety violations: one repeat, two serious to Farmers’ Cooperative at its McCool Junction fertilizer plant

    Details: A 73-year-old worker died from injuries after falling while loading a tanker truck on May 7, according to OSHA’s news release. Citations were related to lack of fall protection, lack of guard rails, and not providing railing on stairways.

  2. Date and location: Sept. 2, Kansas City, Mo.

    Damages paid to whistleblower: $12,000: $2,000 compensatory and $10,000 punitive

    Law violated: Federal Railroad Safety Act by Farmers’ Cooperative

    Details: A railroad conductor at the Murray Yard complex was disciplined in retaliation after a doctor’s appointment in November 2013 where the doctor told him to stay out of work for the rest of the day because of a personal illness, according to OSHA’s news release. Although the worker notified a supervisor about the doctor’s treatment plan, “the company then accused the employee of violating its attendance policy and subsequently disciplined the employee.” In addition to paying damages, the company must “remove disciplinary information from the employee’s personnel record and provide whistleblower rights information to its employees.”

  3. Date and location: Sept. 22, Omaha, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $133,900

    Number of citations for safety violations: three repeat and three serious, including confined space safety regulations, to Watco Companies of Pittsburg, Kan., a business that specializes in rail car repairs and has 30 employees in Omaha

    Details: A worker “reported suffering from respiratory inflammation after performing welding work inside a rail car in Omaha,” according to OSHA’s news release. An investigation in March was launched after the Nebraska Department of Labor Workers’ Compensation Division notified OSHA via a report of the illness. Repeat violations were “for failure to implement training, procedures and practices for safe entry into these spaces, including the company’s failure to evaluate for hazards, and to provide workers with communication devices or implement measures to prevent unauthorized entry.” Previous citations that made these repeat happened in Texas in 2013. “Serious violations were cited for failure to provide administrative and engineering controls to reduce damaging noise exposure, electrical hazards and lack of atmospheric controls in confined spaces.”

  4. Date and location: Sept. 25, Holdrege, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $14,000

    Number of citations for safety violations: two serious: “for failing to train workers in the recognition of unsafe conditions and to teach them how to access emergency medical services from a job site,” according to OSHA’s news release. The company is Van Kirk Sand and Gravel, operating as Van Kirk Brothers Contracting, which is based in Sutton, Neb.

    Details: One worker died and one worker was hurt after getting hit “by an excavator bucket while installing stormwater drainage in a trench … in Holdrege on July 17.” The inspection by OSHA “found that one of the employees sustained puncture wounds from the bucket after it disconnected from the excavator and rolled into the trench from a height of about 4 feet.” That worker died, and the other worker “suffered contusions and abrasions in the incident and has since returned to work.”

  5. Date and location: Sept. 25, Wichita, Kan.

    Damages paid to whistleblower: $261,787 for back wages and damages; and also reinstatement to their job and removing references to the disciplinary action from the employee’s record

    Law violated: Surface Transportation Assistance Act by Stericycle Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., which specializes in biohazard waste disposal

    Details: “An investigation found the company wrongfully terminated a transportation supervisor at its Wichita terminal because the worker raised safety concerns after a driver was instructed to pull a trailer without a valid license plate,” according to the OSHA news release. When the employee was fired in September 2012, it was because of his status as a whistleblower. “It was determined that his protected activity was a contributing factor in the company’s decision to terminate his employment on Sept. 14, 2012, in direct violation of STAA.”

In addition to investigating unsafe working conditions, OSHA also works with nonprofits, businesses and industries to promote safety and accident prevention, which is what the remainder of the news releases in September are about.

  • On Sept. 3, OSHA announced that it is forming an alliance with the Heartland Workers Center of Omaha. This effort will “provide HWC staff, immigrant workers and others with education, guidance and access to training resources on protecting the health and safety of workers,” according to the OSHA news release. This includes promoting workers’ rights, how to make an OSHA complaint, what employers’ responsibilities are under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and providing Spanish-language safety and health training.
  • On Sept. 16, OSHA announced that it will work with Holder Construction Group to keep workers safe during the building of a data center called the Oasis project in Omaha, “which will include a chiller plant, administrative areas and supporting mechanical, electrical and plumbing rooms,” according to OSHA’s news release. The estimated 180 tradesmen who will construct the building, along with their employers, will learn “about hazards construction workers face daily on the job, including fall, electrical, caught-in and struck-by hazards.” In addition to other details, “all contractors and subcontractors on the project will be required to have specific written safety and health programs in place and attend meetings before major work takes place.”
  • Finally, on Sept. 25, OSHA announced in a news release that it was National Farm Safety and Health Week Sept. 21-27. Although the way workers’ compensation is handled when it comes to agriculture varies from state to state, ag is a dangerous industry. The news release includes both statistics and resources with many links for ag workers and their loved ones and also employers. The 2014 theme was “Safety Counts: Protecting What Matters,” according to the OSHA news release. “With a fatality rate of 22.2 for every 100,000 full-time workers, agriculture recorded the highest fatality rate of any industry sector,” in 2013. Issues include “awareness of confined space, farm equipment, grain handling … work-related lung diseases, heat exposure, noise-induced hearing loss, struck-by and fall hazards, skin diseases and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure.”

While it would be great if OSHA didn’t have to exist because workplaces were safe for employees, it is helpful to see both proactive steps taken to make workplaces safe and also businesses being held accountable when workers are injured because businesses or job sites are unsafe in Region 7.

UN Announces Treaty to Restrict Use of Mercury

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Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman, from Jon L Gelman LLC, in New Jersey. As was recently discovered with the drinking-water tragedy in West Virginia, dangerous chemicals and heavy metals can cause long-term health consequences. The uninformed use of many of these substances can also cause long-term problems for workers. As I wrote in Monday’s blog post, as medical research advances, scientists are discovering more correlations and causes of occupational diseases, which also end up applying to workers’ compensation. It is heartening to see the UN take this step to protect both consumers and workers, as unintentional mercury exposure can be an immediate and long-term health risk.

Over 140 governments meeting at a United Nations forum in Geneva have agreed to a global, legally-binding treaty to address mercury, a notorious heavy metal with significant health and environmental effects.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury – named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century – provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted.

These range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors, according to a news release issued recently by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which convened the negotiations.

“After complex and often all-night sessions here in Geneva, nations have recently laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva, in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” he added.

The treaty, which has been four years in negotiation and which will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October, also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects will also form part of the new agreement.

UNEP noted that mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts, including brain and neurological damage especially among the young. Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.

Among the provisions of the treaty, governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, export and import will be banned by 2020. These include batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices; switches and relays; certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs); mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps; and soaps and cosmetics.

Certain kinds of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices are also included for phase-out by 2020.

Governments also approved exceptions for some large measuring devices where currently there are no mercury-free alternatives. In addition, vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative have been excluded from the treaty as have products used in religious or traditional activities.

 

Small Increase Predicted for Social Security COLA

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Social Security benefits are slated to go up, but not by much. “The cost-of-living adjustment in Social Security for 2014 is likely to be very small, marking the fourth year in the last five that recipients receive little or no increase in benefits,” according to a recent CNNMoney article

The American Institute for Economic Research estimates the increase to be 1.4% to 1.6%.  Last year’s increase was 1.7%, and the 2012 increase of 3.6% was the only “significant rise in benefits in recent years,” according to the article.

If there are questions about your specific legal situation, please contact the firm.

Shutdown Hurts Groups that Help Injured Workers

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I can imagine few feelings worse than being hurt on the job, being unable to work and not getting benefits, and/or not being able to seek treatment. I get calls from my clients in that predicament frequently, and it is probably the worst part of my job. 

But the shutdown has made this situation even worse for injured workers with denied claims. The shutdown has endangered funding to community action programs that can help injured workers at least get short-term help with rent, housing utilities and food.  

Please call your senator and representative and tell them to come to their senses and end this shutdown. Also, please consider donating to your local community action program, which you can find by doing an internet search.

OSHA Reaches Employer Agreement to Stop Discouraging Employee Accident Reports

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Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman, from Jon Gelman, LLC – Attorney at Law in New Jersey. This article struck me as timely because firm associate Jon Rehm recently tweeted the following link via his personal account @JonRehmEsq “Exclusive: Judge blasts Union Pacific, awards injured worker $310K http://shar.es/yzgrr via @sharethis”. The Nebraska Watchdog article involved a whistleblower who was an injured worker and covered by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program, mentioned below in the blog. After being fired for reporting his injury, according to the link above, worker Brian Petersen was awarded $310,000 from Union Pacific and also got his job back. Although Mr. Gelman’s post is about BNSF, the OSHA Whistleblower Protection Program applies to UP and also trucking companies, among other industries, according to the blog.

Statistics regarding the reporting of accidents have historically been challenged for accuracy as employees have been fearful about reporting events, and employers have been reluctant for numerous reasons, including the potential of increased insurance costs. Now OSHA has taken a significant step to legitimize the process by seeking an employer accord not to take adverse actions against employees for reporting injuries in the workplace.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has signed an accord with BNSF Railway Co., headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, announcing BNSF’s voluntary revision of several personnel policies that OSHA alleged violated the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act and dissuaded workers from reporting on-the-job injuries. FRSA’s Section 20109 protects railroad workers from retaliation for, among other acts, reporting suspected violations of federal laws and regulations related to railroad safety and security, hazardous safety or security conditions, and on-the-job injuries.

“Protecting America’s railroad workers who report on-the-job injuries from retaliation is an essential element in OSHA’s mission. This accord makes significant progress toward ensuring that BNSF employees who report injuries do not suffer any adverse consequences for doing so,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “It also sets the tone for other railroad employers throughout the U.S. to take steps to ensure that their workers are not harassed, intimidated or terminated, in whole or part, for reporting workplace injuries.”

The major terms of the accord include:

  • Changing BNSF’s disciplinary policy so that injuries no longer play a role in determining the length of an employee’s probation following a record suspension for a serious rule violation. As of Aug. 31, 2012, BNSF has reduced the probations of 136 employees who were serving longer probations because they had been injured on-the-job.
  • Eliminating a policy that Continue reading