Navigating a workers’ compensation claim amid mass layoffs and economic uncertainty

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Skyrocketing unemployment and economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus is delivering another load of fear to already anxious injured workers. Fears about how the sudden downturn in the economy can affect a workers’ compensation claim are legitimate fears.

So, what happens to workers’ compensation claims when an employer closes or lays off workers in mass or goes bankrupt? What happens when a workers’ compensation insurer becomes insolvent? How does a mass layoff or plant closing affect a workers with already an already accepted workers’ compensation claim?

Bankrupt employer

The worst-case scenario is a bankrupt employer. While employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance, financially unstable employers tend to carry cheap high deductible insurance that shits the cost of an injury away from an insurer onto an employer. Bankruptcy can stay the payment of workers’ compensation benefits for an injured worker.

An injured worker with a bankrupt employer needs to contact an attorney. An injured worker is a creditor of a bankrupt employer and the law tends to favor creditors who file first. A lawyer can also go to court and sometimes force an otherwise solvent insurer to pay workers’ compensation benefits for a bankrupt employer.

Insolvent insurer

Recessions hit workers compensation insurers with a vicious one-two punch. Layoffs reduce the insurance premiums the insurance companies rely on and declines in the stock market cut into the investment profits from those premiums.

In Nebraska, like most states, workers compensation insurers pay into guaranty funds to take over claims from insolvent insurers. 

Unfortunately, at least two prominent state governors, Steve Bullock of Montana and Chris Christie of New Jersey, raided guaranty funds in order to balance state budgets. We will probably find out if guaranty funds will serve as an effective backstop in the next few years.

Laid off on “light duty”

Jonathan Louis May of Morgan and Morgan in Memphis raised concerns on Twitter about what happens to injured workers on light duty who get laid off due to a plant closure or mass lay-off. I agree with May that many insurers will probably use layoffs to deny temporary disability.

In Nebraska, a lay-off should not impact a worker’s eligibility for temporary total disability. But it may take a court order to have back due temporary disability benefits paid after a lay off.

Collecting workers compensation and unemployment benefits

Workers laid off in a mass lay-off may have their employer file unemployment for them. Under the recently passed CARES Act, workers can get their weekly unemployment benefit plus $600 for up to four months.

Injured workers who aren’t already collecting temporary disability in Nebraska should be able to collect unemployment and back due temporary disability.

But injured workers in Nebraska who are already collecting temporary disability may not be able to collect these enhanced unemployment benefits. Normally a worker who is collecting temporary total disability benefits is not eligible to receive unemployment under Neb. Rev. Stat. 48-628.02(c). I am not aware if the CARES Act has modified that rule or if the state has eliminated that requirement during the crisis.

When in doubt employees receiving temporary disability under workers compensation ought to file an application for unemployment if they have lost their job due to a coronavirus related layoff. The state of Nebraska has eliminated job search requirements for employees laid off during the coronavirus crisis. Workers normally must be able to and available for work and be looking for work to receive unemployment benefits.  Workers who are temporarily totally disabled for workers compensation aren’t able to work. But if work eligibility isn’t a requirement to receive unemployment if you lose your job due to coronavirus, injured workers who are receiving temporary total disability would have a decent argument to receive unemployment in addition to temporary total disability benefits.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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What workers should know about coronavirus and workers’ compensation

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According to NBC News, at least 20 percent of healthcare workers in Italy have been exposed to coronavirus. Health care workers in Nebraska may be at a similar level of risk. Workers in essential retailing, warehousing and delivery are probably also at heightened risk of catching coronavirus.

So, what do employees need to know to about coronavirus and workers’ compensation?

Reporting possible coronavirus exposures on the job

Coronavirus cases could be difficult workers’ compensation cases for reasons I will explain below. But these difficult cases will be even more difficult in Nebraska if workers fail to notify employers in a timely fashion if they believe they were exposed to the coronavirus. Nebraska courts recently made it easier for employers to dismiss workers’ compensation claims if employees delay notifying employers about potential work injuries. I believe these notice requirements could be even stricter for healthcare workers.

Protections against retaliation for reporting coronavirus exposure and treating for coronavirus

Employees may delay exposure to coronavirus is fear of retaliation. Fears about retaliation will likely be heightened due to fear of job loss in the teeth of mass layoffs and skyrocketing unemployment.

But employees who report possible coronavirus exposure or coronavirus related safety concerns on the job are protected by a variety of anti-retaliation laws that protect workers who claim workers’ compensation and report safety concerns. I’ve written before about the relative weakness of these laws. I believe workers’ will be better served if they can report safety concerns as a group rather than individuals.

A request for time off due to coronavirus or suspected coronavirus may also be covered under the Family Medical Leave Act and the emergency amendments to the Family Medical Leave Act enacted to deal with coronavirus pandemic. These laws also have anti-retaliation provisions.

Why coronavirus exposure would be difficult workers’ compensation claims

The reason why Coronavirus infections may not be covered goes to the fundamentals of proving the basics of a workers’ compensation case: did the infection arise out of and in the course and scope of employment?

In the course and scope of employment

Course and scope of employment goes to having the injury occur within the time and place of employment. Usually in the course and scope of employment is not a disputed issue. But in a case involving a corona virus infection, it may be difficult to prove whether an individual was infected on the job or not. This could be a time and resource consuming investigation for an employee. Public health officials may do some of this legwork, but that information may not be easily accessible due to confidentiality concerns.

Workers infected during business travel are presumed to be acting in the course and scope of employment under the “commercial traveler rule.” But merely catching coronavirus in the course and scope of employment isn’t enough just to have workers’ compensation cover coronavirus related medical expenses and lost wages.

Arising out of

An employee also needs to show that the infection was connected to some risk involved with employment. In other words, employees would have to prove some link between their work duties and their infection. In some cases this could be challenging and would also involve time and expense and in investigation.

Employees may be able to argue in some circumstances that their work increased the chances of them contracting coronavirus. Health care, delivery, warehousing and essential retail employees could have an easier time proving exposure. Unfortunately, in Nebraska there is no presumption of compensability (workers’ compensation coverage) if an injury took place on the job.

Other hurdles of potential Coronavirus workers’ compensation claimants

Coronavirus cases would likely involve more investigation than a typical workers’ compensation case. But many lawyers may not want to take these cases out of economic concerns. In Nebraska, a lawyer can’t be awarded a fee for representing a claimant in a disputed medical bills case. Attorneys can take fees on disability, but temporary disability could be short in a Coronavirus case. In Nebraska, unless a disability lasts more than six weeks and an employer can avoid paying the first week of disability.

Long-term solutions

Last week the president of WILG, a group of lawyers who represent injured workers, called on the insurance industry to make it easier for workers exposed to coronavirus on the job to claim benefits. I think this is a good idea.  The difficulties in getting workers’ compensation for coronavirus indicate the need for stronger health insurance and paid leave benefits to cover employees who may not be able to rely on workers’ compensation.

Stay tuned to this blog about more information about coronavirus and his its impact on workers’ compensation and workplace law. You can also check out my podcast for more commentary.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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No, you don’t need to burn your PTO to get workers’ compensation benefits.

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Employees do not need to exhaust paid time off (PTO) to receive workers’ compensation benefits in Nebraska. Employers in Nebraska must carry workers’ compensation insurance. But in Nebraska, employers aren’t required to pay PTO. Workers compensation pays out benefits whether you have paid leave or whether you have health insurance.

If you injure yourself at work and someone in management or HR tells you that you need to exhaust your paid leave before you collect workers’ compensation benefits, one of three things might be happening.

1. Someone at your company is misinformed about workers’ compensation.

2. Your employer is misleading you about how workers’ compensation works.

3. Maybe you misunderstood what you were told.

So why do some people think you need to exhaust paid leave before you receive workers’ compensation?

Short-term disability and exhaustion of leave

Many short-term disability policies require that employees exhaust paid leave before claiming short-term disability. My wife was required to burn her paid time off in order claim short-term disability during her maternity leave. White collar employers tend to have more short-term disability claims than workers compensation claims. (They tend to shift work injuries on to short and long-term disability, but that’s another story.) So a white collar HR department that lacks knowledge of workers compensation may, wrongly, assume that injured workers need to exhaust paid leave before receiving workers’ compensation.

The stigma of workers’ compensation

Employers who believe that employees need to burn paid time off before workers’ compensation benefits, may also believe this is necessary because they believe it should be necessary. Burning your paid time off before receiving workers’ compensation would be the same as paying a deductible before health insurance pays. Employers who think PTO should serve as a workers’ compensation deductible may believe that workers’ compensation and workers’ compensation claimants are illegitimate. Forcing employees to burn PTO before receiving workers’ compensation is one way to “hold employees accountable.”

Paying a quasi-deductible to receive workers’ compensation benefits is the cornerstone of a portable benefits scheme dreamed up by Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber. (Portable benefits are touted as a replacement for workers’ compensation —- particularly for gig economy workers. Bad portable plans shift the cost of work injuries onto injured workers.)

Misinformed or mislead: A distinction without a difference

I know some high-injury employers actively misinform employees about workers’ compensation. These employers may tell injured workers they need to use paid time off before they can collect workers’ compensation to discourage injured employees from taking time away from work. Employees may work through pain to avoid missing work and losing out on paid family leave and or paid vacation time.

Employee misunderstanding

Nebraska law requires a one-week delay period before an injured worker who is off work can collect temporary disability. If disability lasts longer than six weeks, the employer must pay that first week. . Some employees may take this statement to mean that they need to exhaust their paid leave or PTO to receive workers’ compensation. Many employees don’t want to take the chance of missing out on a week of pay Bluntly many employees may need to draw paid leave or PTO while they are waiting for workers’ compensation benefits to start.

Can you collect workers’ compensation for times you took PTO in Nebraska? Yes you can.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals ruled in Godsey v. Casey’s General Stores that an employee can collect temporary total disability for periods when they took PTO. The court reasoned that since paid leave was a benefit ready earned by the injured worker that an injured worker could collect workers compensation and PTO.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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Does the decline of 24-hour retail mean a safer workplace?

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The Lincoln Williamsburg Hy-Vee, just north of our Lincoln office, joined other Hy-Vee stores in ending 24-hour operations

Hy-Vee Stores ended 24-hour operations in most of their stores throughout the Midwest . Did Hy-Vee’s move help workplace safety for their workers?

Maybe.

24-hour retail and workplace violence

Retail workers are increasingly subjected to violence on the job. Violence at stores increases during overnight hours and in stores where alcohol is sold. Some police departments believe 24-hour retail establishments are public safety risks. So by closing at midnight, Hy-Vee may be lowering the risk of injury from violence for their overnight employees.

However Hy-Vee failed to mention worker safety as a reason for ending 24 hour operations. (The reasons sound like a lot of corporate speak for reducing staff.) In my view, Hy-Vee deserves criticism for some workplace safety practices. I noticed Hy-Vee has implemented a light duty program where injured employees literally sit and/or stand and do nothing. In my experience, these programs are borderline abusive and usually force employees to return to work too soon.

Online shopping and the gig economy

Customer convenience drove the expansion of 24-hour retailing. But many shoppers skip the store all together for the convenience of online shopping and delivery.

Online retail has increased warehousing and delivery jobs that have safety risks of their own. Companies looking to save money contract out delivery to gig economy companies like Shipt and Door Dash Shipt and Door Dash classify their workers as contractors. These contractors lack employment protections like workers’ compensation.  California recently enacted Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) to extend employment protections to gig economy workers. California codified the employee-friendly ABC test in AB5. New Jersey and New York are looking at following California’s lead by classifying gig economy workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Gig economy workers in Nebraska

Nebraska lawmakers have remained silent on whether gig economy workers should be defined as employees or independent contractors. Our state’s workers’ compensation law uses a more employer-friendly “economic reality” test to decide whether a worker is an employee or contractor.

But even using the economic reality test, the Nebraska Supreme Court defined taxi drivers as employees rather than contractors for the purposes of workers compensation. Under that case law, I believe you can argue credibly that most gig economy employees should be deemed employees under the Nebraska Workers Compensation Act.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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A PROblem with the PRO Act

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Image courtesy of the UAW

The House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize or PRO Act last month. If the bill is enacted, it would make it much easier for workers to form unions.

The bill also used the worker-friendly ABC test to define employees under the National Labor Relations Act. (NLRA) The ABC test is the cornerstone of California’s Assembly Bill 5 which extends employment protections, including workers’ compensation, to gig economy workers.

I support the PRO Act. Our firm works with many unions on workers’ compensation claims. Union workplaces tend to be safer workplaces and unions give employees job security above and beyond what non-union employees have under the employment at-will doctrine.

But I don’t think the PRO Act went far enough. I believe the PRO Act should have applied the ABC test for the purposes of federal taxes like unemployment, Social Security and Medicare. I believe that for a few reasons.

One, more tax revenue to those programs would help maintain their solvency. Two, while states control who is an employee for the purposes of workers’ compensation, the fact that an employer pays taxes on an employee makes it more likely an employee will be defined as an employee. Federal tax laws can be a thumb on the scale for workers under state laws like workers’ compensation.

I think the PRO Act’s silence on Social Security and Medicare opens the door for mischief if it is enacted as drafted. Gig economy workers organized into a union without the benefit of basic social insurance programs may be forced to accept cut-rate “portable benefit” packages in lieu of standard mandated benefits like workers’ compensation. Poorly designed portable benefit plans can shift the cost of work injuries onto workers – particularly those are not covered under state workers’ compensation laws. The tech industry has collaborated with former SEIU President Andy Stern to support these types of weak portable benefit programs.

The PRO Act is DOA in the Senate. I think it is unlikely the President would sign the bill on the off-chance it did pass through the Senate. But there is an election coming up in November. It is well within the realm of reason that come next year there could be a Democratic president and a Democratic congress. Would Democrats enact something like the PRO Act if they had the opportunity next year or in 2022?  It probably depends on who the Democratic president would be.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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How to get paid regular wages for missing work due to a medical visit in a workers’ compensation case

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Can an injured worker claim their regular pay if they go to a medical appointment as part of their workers compensation claim? The answer is yes. But like most legal questions there are always qualifications.

Why you can get paid wages for workers’ compensation medical visits
First, per the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and federal regulation 29 CFR 785.43, getting paid for time spent going to a doctor applies when the employee seeks treatment on site or during regular work hours. An employee might have a harder time claiming pay if they are forced to seek medical treatment during non-work hours. But I believe it would be a close and interesting legal issue if time spent going to employer-compelled medical treatment during non-work hours would be covered under the FLSA.

Secondly, per case law, it seems like that medical treatment would need to be expressly authorized and set up by the employer.  It might be more difficult for an employee to get paid their wages while taking time off of work for medical treatment in a disputed workers’ compensation case.

Another complication may be if an employee takes paid leave to attend an employer-ordered medical appointment. Arguably since paid leave or paid time off isn’t mandated by law it might be difficult to bring a claim under the FLSA for the forced taking of paid leave. State wage and hour laws like the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act may provide a remedy.

Why wage and hour law can be better than workers’ compensation claims when it comes to wage payment issues

So why would an injured worker want to claim unpaid wages instead of temporary disability? Several reasons, in Nebraska temporary total disability pays two-thirds of your pay and temporary partial disability pays two-thirds the difference between reduced hours and your average weekly wage. But under wage and hour law, a workers can claim their full wages for time spent going to certain medical visits as part of their workers’ compensation claim.

In Nebraska, overtime pay is not taken into account in determining workers compensation benefits. But under the Fair Labor Standards Act an employee can claim overtime pay. The Nebraska Workers compensation act also caps benefit rates at $882 per week. There is no cap to hourly pay under the FLSA.

Nebraska also has a one week waiting period for benefits. In injuries where disability lasts less than six weeks, that first week of disability isn’t paid. There is no waiting period for unpaid wages under the FLSA.

I’ve written about how the Nebraska workers’ compensation act has weak attorney fee and penalty provisions that make it easy for employers to shortchange employees when it comes to workers compensation disability benefit payments. In contrast the FLSA has strong attorney fee and penalty provisions that make it more attractive to bring claims for smaller amounts. Smaller FLSA claims can also be combined into collective action claims.  The Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act, like most of other workers’ compensation laws, does not allow for collective or class action cases.

The only disadvantage of getting wages over workers’ compensation benefits is wages are taxable while workers compensation benefits are not taxable.

How an employee can bring a wage claim for time spent going to the doctor for workers’ compensation case.

The most important part of a wage and hour case for a worker is being able to precisely prove lost time. This should be simple for injured workers as medical visits usually only take place a few times a week at the most. Many injured workers keep track of mileage already as mileage benefits are part of medical benefits under workers’ compensation in Nebraska. If you can keep track of mileage, you can also keep track of time spent going to medical appointments. If an injured worker turns in mileage to their attorney or workers compensation claims department, there is no reason they can’t turn over claims for unpaid wages to Human Resources directly or through their attorneys.

Anti-retaliation provisions

Retaliation is always a concern of workers who exercise their rights at work. Fortunately, the FLSA makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for exercising their rights under the law. Nebraska and most other states prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who file workers compensation as well.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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Who do rules about texting and driving really protect?

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OSHA came out with guidelines about mobile device use while driving by employees. So why do I have mixed feelings something that most people would think is a good idea?

I believe texting and emailing while driving is a terrible idea and a clear safety hazard. But, management and insurers can use rules about mobile device use while driving to deny workers’ compensation claims.

Management and insurers can use rules about mobile device use while driving to deny workers’ compensation claims. They can argue either that mobile device use by an employee by driving is a deviation from employment duties. That may be difficult to argue if a travelling employee was using a mobile device while driving for work purposes.

In the alternative the employer may affirmatively allege that mobile device used was a safety violation that would disqualify them from receiving workers’ compensation. This is a difficult burden for an employer to meet. OSHA suggests that employers set up a “disciplinary action system” for workers who violated driving safety rules. Having written rules against a practice can make it easier for an employer to defeat a workers’ compensation claim by arguing an employee was willfully negligent.

Generally, workers compensation laws are favorable to workers who are injured while travelling, this known as the travelling employee doctrine or presumption. But in fairness to the insurance industry, this legal doctrine developed before the use of mobile phones.

In fairness to OSHA, their guidance on mobile phone usage was also meant to protect workers from being forced to use mobile devices while driving. Those who work and live in relatively remote areas know the term “windshield time” to describe long car trips. There is intense pressure to use that time productively. There is a strong temptation to text or email while driving even though you know the hazards.

The guidelines may give employees some protections against retaliation if the refuse to text or email while driving. But anti-retaliation laws are only as good as the court cases that interpret them and some courts have recently began to curtail protections afforded by those laws.

I speak from first-hand experience. I do a lot of long-distance driving for work.  If areas like rural Nebraska were better served by air, rail and bus service, I wouldn’t need to drive so much. The same goes for many workers in states like Nebraska. But thanks to transportation deregulation those of us who travel to and within rural areas are stuck in our cars during business hours.

Texting and driving creates risks for other motorists in addition to the drivers who text and drive. But the law already punishes drivers who cause accidents through use of their mobile devices. Drivers who text and drive can be punished criminally and be held accountable in civil cases. Accountability for employers who create dangerous working conditions is mostly limited to state workers’ compensation laws.

I believe the risk of distracted driving is apparent to any adult. Why does OSHA need to issue guidance?  I suspect it has something to do with my point about employers using rules against cellphone usage while driving to deny workers’ compensation claims.

But while OSHA is issuing guidelines about the obvious risk of texting and driving, the United States Department of Agriculture is overlooking the obvious risk of overuse injuries to packinghouse workers. The USDA in the Trump and Obama administrations have allowed meat processors to speed up lines to the detriment of workers. I hope if there is a new presidential administration next year, that administration will use its rule-making power to make workplaces safer and not give employers ways to dodge their responsibilities under state workers’ compensation laws.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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Three partial fixes for difficult workers’ compensation problems

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A lot of my blogging stems from my experience representing my clients in workers’ compensation cases. Last fall, I wrote a couple of posts: “Why so few workers get vocational rehabilitation in Nebraska” and “Why injured workers stop going to the doctor even if they are still in pain” after hard fought litigation had concluded.

I don’t know if it is apparent from the tone of those posts, but they were written from a sense of discouragement and disappointment. In both posts I wrote about the difficulties that injured workers have in receiving fair workers’ compensation benefits.

Law students, law professors and other legal analysts spot legal problems; trial lawyers need to find solutions for legal problems. After reading and reflecting, I’ve come up with three partial solutions for two major problems for injured workers in workers compensation cases.

None of these solutions are ideal or useful in every circumstance. These problems call out for pro-worker reforms to workers’ compensation laws, but even without “structural” solutions, lawyers for injured workers don’t just have to throw up their hands and tell their clients there is nothing they can do for them when faced with these difficulties.

Problems: The TTD/PPD gap.

Solution: Apply for unemployment.

I feel like I’ve written extensively about the problem of the long delay between when temporary benefits end and when permanent disability benefits start. Tara Reck in Washington state wrote a post about advising clients to apply for unemployment benefits in that situation. I kicked myself for not thinking of that before. (By the way, Washington cuts off temporary benefits after a vocational counselor determines an employee can return to work. That would significantly shorten the gap time.)

Applying for UI benefits in this situation is a good idea for a lot of reasons. One, Once a worker is at MMI, they are usually able and available for work. Two usually unemployment requires an extensive job search as a condition of receiving benefits. That job search can be evidence in a workers’ compensation case which can help prove up permanent disability. Evidence of a diligent job search by an injured worker usually also boosts credibility with a judge

Finally, a successful application for unemployment benefits means that an employee has steady income and maybe even finds a job. Having a steady income lessens the pressure on the injured worker to settle their workers’ compensation case.

Problem: The delay between the end of TTD and beginning of PPD

Solution:  Ask court to appoint counselor for LOEP with just FCE restrictions

Part of the delay between the end of temporary and start of permanent disability benefits is the difficulty in figuring out disability. Part of this delay can be explained by the practice of having a doctor ratify or sign off on functional capacity evaluation or FCE results obtained by a physical therapist. Doctor-endorsement of work restrictions is believed by some to be necessary for the appointment of a vocational counselor to perform a loss of earning power evaluation.

Physical therapists have an uncertain status as experts within the workers’ compensation court. But I was able to get a vocational counselor appointed with just FCE restrictions from a PT. (Feel free to contact me for a copy of the order) As a precaution, I did get the findings endorsed by a medical doctor. But I would encourage other plaintiff’s lawyers to push the issue with the trial courts in Nebraska. I believe trial judges are aware of the gap issue and are sympathetic to employees on the issue. With a concerted effort, the plaintiff’s bar in Nebraska may be able to reverse the custom of having a medical doctors endorse FCE restrictions from a physical therapist.

Problem: Future medical in a denied claim where the employee can’t afford future medical care.

Solution: Use company provided medical care

I wrote a post about why injured workers stop going to the doctor even if they are in pain. One of the main reasons why employees stop seeking care is cost. Another reason why employees stop seeking care is because employers manage medical of their injured workers and encourage doctors to release workers without recommendations for future medical care. This problem is particularly acute for employees of self-insured companies or quasi self-insureds with high deductible coverage.

But these self-insured employees usually often provide onsite occupational clinics. These providers are often on the front-line of discouraging claims. Many injured workers don’t seek treatment there because of that reason.

But those clinics are convenient and free of charge to employees who use them. They are a good way to bolster the case future medical if an employee is regularly seeking treatment there for work-related symptoms.  The fact that an injured worker continues to seek treatment at onsite clinic can also help their case by adding legitimacy to their testimony about the nature and extent of their limitations and symptoms from their work injury.

These occupational health notes are a discovery gold mine in my view. Not only do they give you what amounts to a free medical summary, they also document time off work which is incredibly helpful in proving entitlement to temporary disability benefits. The notes can also be a good source for admissions against interest by the employer.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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