I recently met with a client who worked in a psychically demanding industrial job who told me that his employer required a supervisor to accompany the employer to the company infirmary. Many supervisors refused to accompany employees to the nurse, so many employees would forgo going to the infirmary.
Walmart announced last week that it started a pilot program where store employees will deliver packages from stores on their way home from work. If this practice is adopted company wide and adopted by the retail industry as a whole, it will change the nature of retail employment.
Delivery jobs tend to be more physically demanding than retail clerk jobs and can also subject employees to DOT requirements. If package delivery becomes an expected part of retail employment, retail jobs will have more physical and occupational requirements. This could mean in the future that retail jobs may not be a fallback option for workers from other physically demanding occupations who become unable to do their old jobs because of injuries or health problems.
Changing employment laws to encourage so-called “portable benefits” is an idea that goes hand in hand with finding new ways to classify gig economy workers. These proposals are being pushed in a growing number of states. These proposals also enjoy support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. These proposals could also radically alter workers’ compensation in the United States.
The idea of third classification of worker between employee and independent contractor is to give so-called “gig economy” workers some protections and benefits without employers having to bear the full costs of employment – including unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance. Sometimes this third class of workers is described as “dependent contractors.
Portable benefits are usually discussed in the context of contractors because traditionally benefits such as unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance have been provided by employers. So-called portable benefits, are detached from employers. The Affordable Care Act increased portability of health insurance benefits through the use of exchanges Portability of health insurance was touted as a way to help create new businesses because potential entrepreneurs were not tied to an employer for health insurance.
Becker and others point out that the drive to create a new class of workers is being driven by tech companies such as Uber as a way of reducing labor costs. The real risks of creating a new classification of workers is shared even by some who promote the sharing or gig economy. Gene Zaino, founder and CEO of MBO Partners, a firm that provides services to independent workers, stated that any new classification of independent workers should only include workers who earn more than $50 per hour. Under such a scheme lower-paid workers would still retain the benefits and protections of the employment relationship.
Advocates for state-based workers’ compensation laws likely have little constitutional grounds to overturn any federal legislation that would substitute “portable benefits” for so-called “independent workers” for state-based workers’ compensation benefits. Some critics who argue, correctly, that many state-based laws inadequately compensate injured workers could also be open to or even welcome a federal substitute for insufficient state workers’ compensation laws.
The Alabama workers’ compensation statute was found to be unconstitutional because it capped benefits at $220 per week for permanent injuries and it limited attorney fees for plaintiff attorneys to 15 percent. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Pat Ballard found that Alabama’s cap on permanent damages violated equal protection of the laws because it created two classes of workers without any rational basis because some workers were fairly compensated for permanent disability while others were not. Ballard also found that the attorney fee cap violated constitutional due process rights.
While it is encouraging that courts are protecting the rights of injured workers, the decisions in Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama have all been driven by anti-worker legislation in those states. Unfortunately, that trend is continuing in 2017. Possible Democratic presidential candidate and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through anti-worker reforms to New York’s workers’ compensation act.
Good legislation also prevents the need for worker advocates to look to the judiciary to protect the rights of workers. Part of the reason, Judge Ballard ruled against the Alabama Workers Compensation Act was because the maximum benefit rate had not increased in 30 years. In Nebraska, our maximum benefit rate increases automatically under a formula determined by the Department of Labor. Nebraska’s current maximum rate is $817 per week for temporary and permanent disability.
LB 496 was introduced in part to address the shortage of suitable and affordable housing in rural communities with meat packinghouses with large immigrant workforces. In Nebraska that would include the small communities of Madison, Lexington, Crete and Schuyler.
Tenants alleging housing discrimination in Nebraska can file a complaint with the NEOC. The suit against Gerald Rich shows that at least in Nebraska, such complaints will be taken seriously. I hope in the future that our representatives in the Unicameral will act seriously to help provide affordable and suitable housing for residents of our state that came here to do difficult, dangerous and dirty work.
**Lincoln-based author Ted Genoways, who has written extensively about the meatpacking industry, wrote a good piece about the packinghouse community of Garden City, Kansas that is worth a read by clicking here.
Additional licensure and certifications aren’t unheard of in the world of occupational health. In 2016, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration implemented a new rule that only doctors on their registry can perform DOT Physical Examinations for truckers and other professional drivers. This reduced the number of doctors who can perform those examinations.
When I testified on LB 408, a bill that would have implemented drug formularies for opioids under the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act, some doctors were testifying that there was little training in regards to prescribing opioids. Though an opioid prescription registry like the DOT examination registry wasn’t proposed, you could certainly see it proposed as a solution to the opioid problem.
But that article also shared studies that state that pain pill prescriptions are not driving the opioid epidemic. Patients with pre-existing addiction issues are more likely to become addicted to opioids and 75 percent of those who develop opioids start taking opioids in a non-prescribed manner. Furthermore, only 12 to 13 percent of ER patients who are treated for opioid overdoses are chronic pain patients.
The issue of whether Uber drivers and other so-called “Gig Economy” workers are employees or independent contractors is a hot topic among lawyers and policy makers. But last week independent contractors in the Gig Economy and beyond had a more mundane but no less serious dilemma:
Independent contractor status can be helpful for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur. But for those who just want to support themselves and family, involuntary independent contractor status can mean higher taxes, more paperwork and more risk of trouble with the IRS and state revenue agencies. Future tax days could be even more stressful if more workers are forced into independent contractor status in order to support themselves and families.