Tag Archives: Nebraska

Examining Workers’ Compensation’s ‘Grand Bargain’ and the Upcoming Election

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Here’s why people should support candidates who will protect workers’ rights. Understand that the ongoing workers’ compensation issues faced by state legislatures are not going away, so state legislatures are the front lines when it comes to making sure workers’ compensation systems are not diluted even more for injured workers and their loved ones.

Here’s some background. Over 100 years ago, workers’ compensation law was developed across the United States. Nebraska was actually one of the pioneering states, back when we were more progressive.  Workers’ compensation was viewed as the “Grand Bargain,” with several presumptions on how the system should work. A January 2014 LexisNexis Legal News Room Workers Compensation Law blog post addresses these presumptions. The blog itself is a respected neutral source on workers’ compensation issues.

While employers and insurance companies are chipping away at the protection workers’ compensation systems offer to injured workers and their loved ones through stalling tactics such as disputing if an injury happened at work or just straight out refusing coverage, those same interests are bending the ears of each state’s politicians to further erode the “Grand Bargain.”

Year in and year out, business and insurance groups cause a large number of bills to be filed that take away benefits from workers or make it more difficult for workers to obtain benefits or take control of their treatment for work injuries.

A recent study’s results, written in the same blog by the same author, reinforces what many injured workers, their loved ones, and their attorneys already know: essentially that workers in New Mexico (and I would argue that this is easily applicable to injured workers in many states) are no longer benefitting from the “Grand Bargain.”

The Grand Bargain Is Out of Equilibrium

“An important part of the ‘grand bargain’ between employers and employees within the workers’ compensation arena is the idea that just as the wear and tear on an employer’s machinery ought to be reflected in the price of the employer’s goods or services, so also should the wear and tear on the employer’s work force. A product’s price should reflect the total cost of production, including the costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses. The Seabury study adds weight to the argument that the grand bargain is out of equilibrium, that workers’ compensation benefits do not adequately replace what a worker loses through his or her injury, that the physical and economic costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses are not being fully addressed, and that the injured worker is at least partially subsidizing the overall cost of America’s goods and services with his or her lost income.”

The bottom line from this respected author is that workers’ compensation benefits should not be reduced, made more difficult to obtain, etc., when workers who get injured already make less money over a 10-year period of time than workers who aren’t injured.

So let’s elect legislators who will both restore and support the “Grand Bargain” for injured workers and their loved ones.

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.

Are You Really an Independent Contractor?

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“Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.” Abraham Lincoln

FedEx drivers recently won two class-action lawsuits in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that FedEx wrongfully withheld overtime pay, Social Security, unemployment, Medicare and other benefits to drivers because they were misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees. The decisions were driven by the fact that FedEx exercised control over the appearance of drivers as well as what packages to deliver, on what days, and at what times.

Though the FedEx decision only applies to Oregon and California, it is very possible that a similar decision would have been made under Nebraska law. Under the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act as well as under the Employment Security Law, Neb. Rev. Stat. 48-601 et al., there is a five-part test as to whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee.

  1. Individual is free from control or direction under contract of hire
  2. Individual is free from control or direction as a matter of fact
  3. Service is outside the usual course of business for which service is performed
  4. Such service is performed outside of all the places of business of the enterprise which such service is performed
  5. Individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, business or profession.

Nebraska law creates a presumption of an employer-employee relationship. Tracy v. Tracy, 581 N.W. 2d 96, 7 Neb. App. 143 (Neb. Court of Appeals, 1998) In short, if you can answer most of those questions “no,” you are very likely an employee rather than an independent contractor. The mere fact that you may have signed a documents stating you are independent contractor does not necessarily mean you are an independent contractor.

In addition to protections under federal law, asking questions about your employment status is also a protected activity under Nebraska law. Being misclassified as an independent contractor could cost you thousands of dollars in wages and benefits. However, you have the ability to fight back if you are being misclassified.

Deadline for ACA Sign Up Is Monday

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Monday, March 31, is the deadline to enroll for coverage this year through the Affordable Care Act’s process. There’s a lot of information out there, and it can be extremely overwhelming. For procrastinators, here are some good places to start, hopefully help to beat the deadline, and most importantly, enroll in insurance coverage.

A starting place is healthcare.gov. Be sure to use the .gov, as other places (.com, .net, etc.) aren’t actually the insurance exchange and at worst, can be scams. From there, if things get confusing, as insurance often does, another option is to call 800-318-2596 for help, according to healthcare.gov. Or, by clicking on “Find local help” and providing a zip code, there are more direct ways to get ahold of someone and ask questions.

The site itself answers such questions as what kind of coverage a person qualifies for when the marketplace application is filled out. Unfortunately, Nebraska is one of the states that has chosen to not expand Medicaid, so clicking on the link about what Medicaid expansion means will help explain how this affect people. However, many folks are qualifying for subsidies, which are automatically applied to specific plans, often the silver level, and help people afford more comprehensive coverage, with the subsidies based on income. Note that the one-page guide recommends applying either online or by phone, as a paper application won’t be processed quick enough to meet Monday’s deadline.

Here’s an example of how the ACA affects people in one industry that the firm works with through the website www.truckerlawyers.com. The Smiths, who are strong advocates for drivers, recently had both a blog post and a podcast about options for truckers, so follow the links to explore those resources. This information also generally applies to those who aren’t truckers, too.

Why should a person go to the effort? Because there are actually financial and societal benefits to having health insurance, especially if something happens and a person has medical needs.

An editorial in the Kansas City Star recently argued a number of points about the wisdom of having insurance coverage. As has been mentioned before in this blog, folks having health insurance coverage benefits more than just the individual.

“You’ll be pulling your weight. Americans pick up the costs of caring for uninsured patients in the form of higher insurance premiums, higher taxes and more expensive care.”

Just as it’s important for employers to have workers’ compensation insurance coverage, individuals – and their families – should have health insurance to try to plan for the unknown.

Facebook Pictures’ Use Evolving in Workers’ Compensation Cases

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In the past, I have warned about the possible pitfalls of social media on a workers’ compensation claim.

However, the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court has never really ruled on Facebook in the context of discovery matters in a work comp claim, meaning how much access can your employer have to your Facebook account if you file a workers’ compensation claim? 

Recently, however, the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court (at least one judge) has taken the position that in order for your employer to gain access to photographs from your Facebook profile, it must “make a showing of the necessary factual predicate underlying [the] broad request for access.” In other words, your employer must have a decent reason to suspect that a certain photograph or something from your Facebook account has the potential to be relevant to the work comp case before the court will simply grant full access to your Facebook account to your employer.

Therefore, depending on your situation, your Facebook may be safe from your employer to some degree. However, this is a cautionary tale to remind you that even though your employer cannot simply have blanket access to all of your Facebook photos – at least according to one Nebraska judge – it does not mean that your Facebook photos or posts are necessarily safe from your employer gaining access to them at some point during your work comp case. I think the judge in this case takes a step in right direction, but you still must be aware that anything you put on Facebook may be subject to discovery (i.e., your employer may still possibly get access to it) at some point in the future.

Contact a Workers’ Compensation Lawyer, Even if Your Medical Bills Are Being Paid: Here’s Why

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Nebraska is a state that has a “prompt payment rule” for medical expenses in workers’ compensation cases. This means that so long as your employer has sufficient knowledge that your medical care is necessary because of the injury, your bills should be paid. This is a huge plus because even a minor workers’ compensation injury can cause an employee to rack up thousands of dollars in medical bills.

In Nebraska, delay of medical payment is treated as a denial of a claim. That is why a delay in paying for medical bills from a work injury gives the employee the right to pick their own doctor for a work injury.

The issue of doctor choice brings up a couple of the hidden dangers of the prompt payment rule.  Many times, employers will promptly pay medical expenses for doctors who will oftentimes release employees before they are done healing and return employees back to work before they are ready. Employees need to be able to know their doctor-choice rights before they agree to an employer/insurer-oriented clinic or doctor – especially if that doctor is not their family doctor.

Secondly, employees can get lulled into contentment when an employer pays their medical bills. Medical benefits are one aspect of workers’ compensation benefits; the other is loss of income benefits. An employer/insurer may use their leverage with a doctor to minimize loss of income benefits. Also, when employees get into litigation, they are oftentimes confused by the fact that an employer will pay for medical benefits, but not loss of income benefits, or will deny that the injury is even work related. This is related to the prompt payment rule. Just because an employer pays medical bills, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they or a workers’ compensation judge will believe those medical bills are related to the work accident.

Offered Severance? Questions for Hurt Workers to Ask

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Getting hurt at work and getting fired are two of the most stressful occurrences for an employee. Oftentimes, these stressors are combined when an injured worker receives a severance agreement. This article provides five questions an injured worker who gets a severance agreement should ask:

  1. Does signing a severance agreement settle your workers’ compensation claim? Connecticut courts recently ruled that a severance agreement does not release a workers compensation claim. However, Florida courts have held the opposite. My state of Nebraska generally does not allow workers’ comp claims to be released in severance agreements. Consult with a lawyer in your state to get a good answer. Most lawyers who do workers’ compensation work on a contingent fee basis are generally happy to spend a reasonable amount of time answering questions from injured workers faced with a severance agreement. Don’t let fear of cost deter you from contacting a lawyer.
  2. What does your state’s workers’ compensation act cover? Some workers’ compensation statutes, like Ohio and Texas, also cover retaliatory discharge cases. My state of Nebraska makes wrongful discharge a separate civil claim. The consequence of that for injured workers in Nebraska and other states with so-called “common law” retaliatory discharge causes of action: a severance agreement would close out that case along with most other claims under fair employment statutes like the ADA, FMLA and Title VII. If you are in a state where retaliatory discharge is covered under your workers’ comp statute, then that case may not be released in a severance agreement in a comp claim if your state doesn’t allow comp claims to be settled in severance agreements.
  3. What are your chances for receiving unemployment benefits?  Finding out your chances of receiving unemployment is critical – again, especially if you are forced to choose between severance and workers’ compensation. The key questions to ask for eligibility for unemployment are 1) whether you earned enough wages to be covered 2) whether you quit without good cause or were fired for misconduct and 3) whether you are able and available for work. Of course, if you have an ongoing workers’ compensation claim, the fourth question is how receiving unemployment would affect your workers’ compensation claim. If you chose to negotiate your severance agreement, either by yourself or with a lawyer, try to include a provision where the employer chooses not to oppose your application for unemployment benefits.
  4. Do you get benefits like vacation pay, even if you don’t sign a severance agreement? In some states, including my state of Nebraska, an employee should receive vacation pay or paid time off regardless of whether they sign a severance agreement or not. Again, if you live in a state where an employer can release a workers’ compensation claim through a severance agreement, your eligibility for vacation pay along with unemployment benefits should help you decide whether it make sense for you economically to pursue your workers’ compensation claim if you have to pick between severance and workers’ compensation. This also holds true for severance agreements in general if you an employer is asking to you to release a strong fair-employment claim for a low-ball severance amount.
  5. Did you contact a lawyer who is knowledgeable about workers’ compensation? This is a critical period and critical especially if you live in a state where comp claims can be released by severance agreements. An experienced workers’ comp lawyer can value your comp claim. Some ways to evaluate whether a workers’ compensation lawyer is knowledge is to check whether they are a member of the Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG). Another is to see if you can search them on your state’s workers’ compensation court website or through free legal research services like FindLaw and Google Scholar. A knowledgeable workers’ compensation lawyer in your state should also be able questions 1-4.

Can I Collect Unemployment if I Have a Workers’ Compensation Case?

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Injured workers are often forced to navigate the tricky waters of unemployment when they have a workers’ compensation claim. Not understanding how the two sets of laws interact can lead injured workers to trouble in unemployment and workers’ compensation for people who can ill afford the trouble. Here are some answers that Nebraska workers applying for unemployment after a work injury would want to know.

  1. When can you receive both workers’ compensation benefits and unemployment at the same time?Nebraska law allows you to collect workers’ compensation benefits and unemployment benefits at the same time only if your rate of weekly work comp benefit is worth less than your weekly unemployment. In that case, you collect your full workers’ compensation benefit, and unemployment pays the difference between your comp check and the unemployment benefits check. The advantage to the worker in this scenario is that the workers’ compensation is not subject to tax, while the unemployment benefits are taxable.Unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits rates are set under different formulas. You might fall into this category if you were injured shortly after starting a lower-paying job but had previously earned higher wages for a length of time at your previous job.However, if you do receive workers’ compensation benefits that are higher than your unemployment benefits, you cannot collect unemployment benefits.
  2. Won’t I “hurt” my workers’ compensation case if I have received unemployment benefits?There used to be some truth to concerns of unemployment benefits reducing the amount an employer has to pay on a workers’ compensation case. However, those concerns have temporarily been eliminated by the recent case of Hernandez v. JBS, found at this link: http://www.supremecourt.ne.gov/sites/supremecourt.ne.gov/files/coa/opinions/a12-435.pdf. In Hernandez, the Nebraska Court of Appeals overruled a Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court judge who reduced the temporary total disability (TTD) pay awarded to a worker, who was fired by JBS, by the amount he received in unemployment.I believe the Nebraska Court of Appeals used sound reasoning to make their ruling in Hernandez.  However, the Nebraska Supreme Court has the ability to overturn the Nebraska Court of Appeals. Also, the Nebraska Legislature has the ability to rewrite Nebraska workers’ compensation and/or unemployment laws to overturn Hernandez.I would expect efforts to overturn Hernandez will be made in the courts and Legislature. My guess is the argument for overturning Hernandez will be that injured workers are receiving a “windfall” by receiving workers’ compensation on top of unemployment.

    This argument is nonsense. First of all, if a worker receives work comp benefits and unemployment, judges with the Nebraska Department of Labor and the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court have likely both found that the employee was not at fault for being terminated. Second, if a worker who cannot work because of a work injury is forced to apply for unemployment because he or she isn’t receiving workers’ compensation, there is a good chance that the employer either concocted a reason to fire the employee or forced the injured worker to do a job that she or he was unable to do.