Tag Archives: Texas

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.

“Opting Out” of Worker’s Compensation Hurts Workers and Employers (Part 2)

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Today’s post comes from guest author Tom Domer, from The Domer Law Firm in Wisconsin. It is a follow-up to a post last week. There is a disturbing trend among states to essentially gut workers’ compensation systems and laws by being “business friendly” and then calling that practice variations of “alternative worker’s compensation programs.” I always thought businesses were more profitable and successful when their employees worked in a safe environment and were taken care of if they happened to get injured on the job. And the reality is that in the race for a bigger profit, the injured workers pay in human capital. The wisely written “cautionary note to employers” below is the workers’ consolation prize, apparently.

Last week we explained Wisconsin’s rich history of protecting injured workers through its mandatory workers’ compensation system. This week we’ll look at what is happening in Texas and Oklahoma, where it is not mandatory for employers.

Alternative worker’s compensation programs( like that of Texas’—and now Oklahoma— non-subscriber / “Opt Out” scheme) have the potential to significantly reduce workplace safety. Since experience rating is a fundamental component of worker’s compensation insurance systems, the comp system provides economic incentives to employers through reduced insurance costs to companies with reduced injury rates and safe workplaces.  Texas’ “opt out” option  means that an employer can choose to be self insured or become a non-subscriber and opt out of worker’s compensation insurance entirely. Those employers opting out of worker’s compensation systems are not experience rated and there is no economic incentive to reduce workplace injuries and ensure safe work environments for their employees.

Most recently on April 17, 2013 a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, killing 15 and injuring approximately 200 people. EMS workers, firefighters, and other first responders were among the casualties.  The West Fertilizer Company was approved to have no more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate in the plant, but instead, 270 tons were reported to be on site. West Fertilizer failed to inform the Department of Homeland Security of the amount of fertilizer it had. Texas had as well the worst recorded industrial accident in America in 1947 when 3,200 tons of ammonium nitrate resulted in almost 600 deaths and 3,500 injuries.

Texas has the worst work-related fatality rate in the nation.

Texas has the worst work-related fatality rate in the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 433 reported fatalities occurred in 2011 alone in Texas with the highest (4.79 per 100,000 workers) for the last ten years. (Oklahoma is in line to follow).

Oklahoma’s worker’s compensation measure was signed into law May 5 and it drastically changes how Oklahomans are compensated for on the job injuries. Republican Governor Mary Fallin has tried to change the worker’s compensation system for over 20 years in State politics.  She indicated the bill would reduce costs for businesses. The law changes worker’s compensation system from a judicial to an administrative one, allowing businesses to opt out of the worker’s compensation systems as long as they provide “equivalent” benefits to injured workers. Opponents of the law indicate that it is unfair to injured workers because it will reduce their benefits. The implementation of “equivalent” benefits, and what kind of injuries are covered or uncovered by those who “opt out” of the system is yet to be determined.

Cautionary note to employers: since those employers that “opt out” of worker’s compensation are no longer allowed the benefit of the exclusive remedy provision of worker’s compensation, workers who are not covered by worker’s compensation can sue their employers. For example, in a recent Colorado case where an undocumented worker (who by Statute in Colorado was not covered under worker’s compensation) received over a $1 million verdict against the negligent employer.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_industrial_disasters

Worker’s compensation systems benefit both employers and workers, and the dangers of opting out of the system means a retreat to harsh industrial conditions, producing  the same kind of inequities  that workers’ comp remedied over a century ago. The situation calls to mind the maxim that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

“Opting Out” of Worker’s Compensation Hurts Workers and Employers (Part 1)

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Our good friend Tom Domer posted the following article about the history of workers compensation in America. Nebraska, like Wisconsin, was an early pioneer. Our Workers Compensation law was effective in 1913. Current efforts to allow business to opt of workers compensation protection for workers seems to be gaining momentum. Going back to the 19th century in treatment of workers is not acceptable. We can’t let the forces of big business and greed take us back to the robber baron days of old. Reading the history and understanding how important workers compensation protection is essential and I thank Tom for his well written and thoughtful discussion.

More than a century ago, Wisconsin’s initial efforts in worker’s compensation led the nation. In 1911 Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to place a broad constitutionally valid worker’s compensation system into operation. Recent events, specifically Oklahoma’s passing legislation to allow employers to “opt out” of worker’s compensation (following the “lead” of Texas) calls into question the great bargain made between employers and workers over a century ago. Prior to the enactment of worker’s compensation in the early 20th Century, workers who were injured on the job had to overcome three common law obstacles in order to recover from their employer.

Under contributory negligence, a worker could not recover from the employer if the worker had been negligent in any way and that negligence contributed to the accident, regardless of how negligent the employer may have been.

Under assumption of risk, if a worker knew or should have known of the danger inherent in the task at issue before undertaking it, the employer was not liable for an accident arising from the task even if the employee was not negligent.

Under the fellow servant rule, employers could not be held liable for accidents caused by fellow employees.

The combined effect of these common law defenses served to deny Continue reading

Texas Stories: Symptom of Bigger Workers’ Comp Debates

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We have been listening with interest to a recent National Public Radio (NPR) series about construction workers and businesses in Texas. The series about this industry confronts many of the issues that are being debated by society these days, whether in the judicial, executive or legislative branches.

To add some context, these topics include employing immigrant workers; paying a living wage; calling an employee an independent contractor; and ensuring workplace safety, workers’ compensation, and payroll taxes are all done, practices that specifically are not happening in Texas, according to the stories. A notable quote from the first piece is “Texas is the only state in the nation without mandatory workers’ compensation, meaning hospitals and taxpayers usually end up shouldering the cost when uncovered construction workers are hurt.” And we think the information from the second piece is quite telling that the business owner “asked that NPR not use his last name because the IRS might take an interest in his business, designs and builds landscapes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.” Because he treats his crew as “self-employed contractors,” meaning that the IRS would likely see his interpretations of tax law as illegal. From the story: “This is a key distinction. If Trent were to classify his workers as employees, he’d have to pay taxes, Social Security, unemployment and overtime. But by saying his workers are actually independent contractors – in essence, business owners – he’s off the hook.”

We think listening to these two pieces, at less than 15 minutes total, is a good opportunity to experience an applied illustration of what happens to the vulnerable when such protections as workers’ compensation are effectively dismantled for profit-taking and political reasons. Respected colleague Jon Gelman in New Jersey recently wrote a blog post that focuses on the first NPR report and “how bad it is for workers who get injured in Texas.”

Although things are allegedly always more extreme in Texas, attacks on the vulnerable aren’t limited to that state, unfortunately. Ms. Cathy Stanton, president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (WILG), and a respected colleague from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano in New York, recently wrote an extremely useful article about “Emerging Trends in Legislative Attacks on Injured & Ill Workers.”

In Nebraska, the anti-worker, pro-business Nebraskans for Workers’ Compensation Equity and Fairness group is backing LB 584 that would dramatically limit protections that workers have when it comes to being injured through a concept called evidence-based medicine/utilization review. In addition to our firm writing numerous blog posts about this legislation, EBM/UR is #8 in Ms. Stanton’s list of “trends throughout the country which would negatively impact existing Workers’ Compensation benefits.” And according to this article, politicians in Tennessee are looking to gain some brownie points with business and insurance by overhauling the workers’ compensation courts to the detriment of injured workers. Iowa workers and attorneys have to contend with #6 on the list, restricting doctor choice, while a bill in Nebraska’s legislature is in the works to do the same if passed.

We agree with what Ms. Stanton writes: “All workers need to be aware of these trends because the likelihood of legislation being introduced in their state against their interests is strong. Employee immunity has remained untouched, but workers’ benefits are consistently under attack as a result of the collective lobbying efforts of the insurance industry and large corporations.   Unfortunately the great compromise is turning out to be one sided as workers are forced to endure multiple obstacles and hurdles to be entitled to fewer and more restricted benefits.”

So we would encourage you to join us in educating yourselves about how workers’ compensation “reform” can lead to stories like NPR’s cautionary tales about the construction industry in Texas and to explore what’s going on in your state legislature. Finally, get involved in your state’s political process to advocate for workers!

Are fraud and misrepresentation claims the best way to enforce doctor choice for injured workers?

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A case out of Texas may provide injured workers to a way to enforce their state’s doctor choice laws.  In Warneke v. Nabors Drilling USA, a Texas appellate court held that a workers’ fraud and misrepresentation case against his employer for lying about having workers compensation coverage was not barred by the exclusive remedy of the workers compensation statute because the fraud was separate from the work injury.

A workers compensation doctor choice fraud and misrepresentation claim would be difficult to prosecute, but as a fellow trial lawyer told me at a recent AAJ membership and PAC drive, if things were easy people wouldn’t need lawyers.

In Warneke, the employer lied when it told their injured employee that they did not have workers compensation insurance. The court said the fraud caused the plaintiff to incur unpaid medical bills as well as emotional damages from economic distress. Continue reading