Consider these common scenarios after a serious work injury.
An injured employee is done recovering from a surgery but can’t go back to work until they complete a Functional Capacity Evaluation.
An injured employee is done recovering from a spinal fusion surgery and is unable to go back to their old job. Even if on the odd chance they could go back to their old job, they have been off work so long that any job protections available under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have long passed.
In both cases an injured worker is likely 1) not getting temporary total disability (TTD) 2) Is not earning wages and 3) Has not started receiving any permanent partial disability (PPD) or permanent total disability (PTD).
Some call it “the gap”, some call it “the squeeze”, but whatever you call it, it’s a painful situation to be in to not have any money coming in after a recovery from an injury.
Workers’ compensation laws in Nebraska are supposed to be interpreted in favor of the employee to effectuate the beneficent purpose of relieving employees of the economic effects of a work injury. How can employers/insurers squeeze injured employees like this?
One answer is that case law may allow this. I am going to cut and paste in the relevant language case law into this blog post in italics. I am going to bold face the language insurers rely on to squeeze injured employees.
Temporary disability ordinarily continues until the claimant is restored so far as the permanent character of his or her injuries will permit. Compensation for temporary disability ceases as soon as the extent of the claimant’s permanent disability is ascertained. In other words, temporary disability should be paid only to the time when it becomes apparent that the employee will get no better or no worse because of the injury.
The term “maximum medical improvement,” or MMI, has been used to describe the point of transition from temporary to permanent disability. Once a worker has reached MMI from a disabling injury and the worker’s permanent disability and concomitant decreased earning capacity have been determined, an award of permanent disability is appropriate.
The argument underlying the squeeze is that TTD ends when a doctor states you have plateaued medically, but you can’t get permanent disability until your disability has been ascertained. This could mean waiting for a permanent impairment rating or it could mean waiting for an FCE, having a doctor endorse the results and then having a vocational counselor determine disability. As Roger Moore at our office pointed out in 2015, the latter process can last months.
I think allowing insurers to exploit the gap between TTD and PPD is an incorrect reading of the law. As I pointed out earlier, it doesn’t effectuate the beneficent purpose of the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act. If TTD ends when disability is ascertained, doesn’t disability actually need to be ascertained through assigning either permanent impairment or permanent restrictions and/or a determination of loss of earning power before TTD payments end? Finally, if MMI signals the transition between temporary and permanent disability benefits, isn’t MMI merely the beginning of the end of temporary benefits rather than the end of temporary benefits? Doesn’t the term “transition” account for some time period when disability is being ascertained?
The temporary/permanent squeeze is an issue of great interest to me. While I think the squeeze is a misreading of the law, I am not certain a trial judge or appellate court would see things my way. The issue may have to be resolved in the Legislature, but the issue is one that should be addressed in litigation. I am one attorney who is willing to litigate the issue on behalf of an injured employee.