Tag Archives: COVID-19

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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