In a dubious triumph for bi-partisanship, Pennsylvania reduced workers’ compensation benefits for many if not most workers with permanent injuries in 2018. 2018 was a bad year legally for workers rights and the so-called Protz fix was emblematic of the year for a few reasons.
But 2018 also showed some glimmers of hope for workers such that there may be fixes for legislation like the Protz fix.
Legislatures take, courts make and vice versa
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed HR 1840 which legislatively overturned the Protz decision which held Pennsylvania’s language using the “most recent” edition of the AMA Guides to Permanent Impairment to determine compensation for permanent injuries was unconstitutional. Pennsylvania “fixed” the Protz decision by expressly adopting the AMA 6th.
The AMA 6th has been criticized, correctly in my view, because it is bases impairment on inability to do general life activities versus working activities. A recent study confirms this suspicion long held by plaintiff’s attorneys. From a practical point of view, the AMA 6th usually leads to an injured worker receiving less compensation than they would under previous editions of AMA impairment “cookbook.”
When I started practicing in 2005 a worker who had a carpal tunnel surgery usually had a 5 percent impairment under the AMA 5th. Now, that same injury is typically a 1 percent impairment under the AMA 6th.
For a worker in Nebraska earning $15 per hour, the difference between the two impairments on a wrist injury amounts to $2800. After the Protz “fix” was passed, the Pennsylvania Compensation Rating Bureau filed for a 14.74 decrease in workers’ compensation insurance rates.
My big takeaway from the Protz decision and the subsequent “fix” is just how much work needs to be done politically to make sure injured workers are fairly compensated for their injuries. The Protz “fix” passed easily. Plaintiff’s lawyers resorted to constitutional challenges because many state legislatures have weakened workers’ compensation laws. Protz shows that appellate victories can be fleeting because legislatures can easily overturn those decisions.
Does the plaintiff’s bar need to worry about “constitutional challenges” of their own?
2018 also saw some disturbing court decision that could impact workers’ compensation. In SEC v. Lucia the United States Supreme Court held an investment adviser convicted of securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was unconstitutionally convicted because the Administrative Law Judge (ALJs) who tried his case was hired in violation of the appointments clause. Iowa is one of many states workers’ compensation cases are heard by Administrative Law Judges that are hired as civil servants rather than appointed by the Executive. SEC v. Lucia could help employers/insurers to make persuasive appointments clause arguments under state constitutions that such arrangements are unconstitutional.
Protz relied on an argument about unconstitutional delegation of legislative powers which is fundamentally a conservative argument which was used to strike down New Deal legislation. Workers’ compensation reforms have also been challenged on a contracts clause basis which is another conservative argument used against pro-workers legislatsion in the past. Maybe these arguments appeal to conservative pro-business types, but they could be used against advocates for injured workers and their clients.
But there are some reasons for hope that emerged in 2018.
2018: Reasons for hope for injured workers
But 2018 did see gains for Democrats in state and federal elections. To be blunt, pro-worker is often a code for “Democrat”. While there are some exceptions, most conservatives are terrible for workers. Democrats generally oppose extreme conservatives, so they serve some purpose. But in Pennsylvania the so-called Protz fix was signed by a Democratic governor and supported by Democratic state legislators. In my experience, many Democratic elected officials aren’t going to support workers unless they get prompted, but they are usually lack the same ardor to gut workers’ rights.
More hope can be found outside the realm of electoral politics. In 2018 citizens started taking direct action. Some of the biggest gains made for workers in recent memory happened during teachers’ strikes in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia this year. The chattering classes asked “Why don’t these striking teachers just vote for the right people?” Well, they tried and it didn’t work. Rank and file teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia found a better way to advocate for themselves.
The teachers strikes took place in the wake of the Janus decision that dealt a blow to public sector unions. Workers’ rights were also dealt a blow by the Epic decision that, among other things, allowed employers the right not to join class and collective action cases through so-called arbitration agreements. Workers for Chipotle and Uber have come up with the ingenious hack of filing in mass for individual arbitrations.
I see the challenge for 2019 for lawyers for injured workers’ is finding away for this newly emerging energy and creativity from workers in support of their own rights focused on improving workers’ compensation. I’ve written before about state senators Dan Quick of Nebraska and Lee Carter of Virginia who used their bad experiences with workers’ compensation to try to improve the workers’ compensation laws in their state.
So while lawyers for injured workers may be on the defensive in the legislative and judicial arena, we may have newfound allies that could help us reverse the steady erosions of workers’ compensation laws.