Tag Archives: exclusive remedy

Don’t bet on workplace safety

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Decent people reacted with shock and disgust to news of allegations that managers at a Tyson meatpacking plant in Waterloo, Iowa were making bets about the number of workers who would catch COVID-19.

The allegations were included in a wrongful death claim filed by the family of a worker who allegedly died from COVID exposure at the plant. Iowa allows workers to get around the limited compensation available under workers’ compensation if the employee can prove their injury was caused by the gross negligence of another employee.

If true, managers betting on employee COVID-19 exposure would likely be evidence of gross negligence. So besides another example of man’s inhumanity to man, what does the COVID-19 betting pool tell us about workers’ compensation and workplace safety?

Good alternatives to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation

Iowa is fairly unique in allowing for negligence suits for work injuries. In Nebraska, and most other states, workers compensation is the only way that employees can be compensated for a work injury.  Lawyers and judges use the term the terms “exclusive remedy rule” or just “exclusive remedy” to describe workers’ compensation laws  The so-called grand bargain of workers’ compensation is that workers don’t need to prove negligence by their employer to be compensated for a work injury. In exchange they receive limited benefits.

But workers’ compensation has proven largely inadequate to COVID-19 due to difficulties in linking COVID-19 exposure to the workplace. While some cases are being prosecuted by employees they are hard cases to win that are only feasible in cases of death or serious injury.  Benefits in death cases also rely on proving a formal marriage relationship and or evidence of supporting dependents. Not all injured workers fall into that category.

Worse, the exclusive remedy rule has largely ruled out legal workarounds to the exclusive remedy rule.

However, Iowa’s allowance of tort cases, with higher potential payouts in cases of work injuries and deaths from COVID seems like the best way for seriously injured workers and their families to hold employers accountable. And bluntly, it’s not that great of an option.

Some readers may ask, isn’t OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, supposed to regulate workplace safety? If workplaces were safe there wouldn’t be a need for lawsuits. But OSHA sidelined itself early in pandemic

How OSHA sidelined itself in the pandemic

In April, OSHA announced it would not enforce record keeping requirements for COVID-19 for employers such as packinghouses. I believe that this sent a signal that OSHA wouldn’t take the pandemic seriously. OSHA later reversed the policy and even issued a few citations. But OSHA’s slowness to respond to COVID-19 cost lives both on the job and in the communities around COVID-19 hotspot workplaces.

OSHA continues to refuse to specific rules about workplace safety and COVID. Sure, once the Biden administration finally takes over and gets going, OSHA might issue some standards. But even in a Democratic administration, the Department of Agriculture, who also regulates meatpacking plant may seek to weaken workplace safety measures implemented by the Department of Labor. For example, while the Department of Labor did some innovative enforcement of meat processing plants in the Obama administration, the Department of Agriculture allowed some packers to speed up processing lines. Faster lines correlate with more injuries.

Why local media is matters in covering workplace safety, part 2

The story about the COVID pool at Tyson was broke by a local journalism outlet in Iowa. This is the second straight week, I’m writing about a workers’ compensation issue first reported on by local reporters. Local reporters are essential in covering workers’ compensation because workers’ compensation is a state law. Also, many unsafe workplaces exist well outside journalist-rich cities like New York City and Washington DC. It’s important to have good reporters in places like Iowa and Nebraska to tell the stories of workers there.

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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“Wildcat strikes”, workplace safety and public sector workers

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The Lincoln Education Association (LEA), the union that represents teachers at Lincoln Public Schools, moved quickly and clearly to discourage a rumored mass sick out by teachers in Lincoln late last month. The sick out was meant to protest working conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walking off-the-job in mass or mass call-ins without union approval or without a union period is sometimes known as a “wildcat strike.” But while the LEA was correct in stating a coordinated sick out by teachers is illegal in Nebraska, most private sector employees have the right to walk off the job due to safety conditions under certain circumstances.

When are wildcat strikes permissible?

Wildcat strikes are permissible under the National Labor Relations Act, the Labor Management Relations Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act. While the standards for what is permissible vary by law, a worker contemplating organizing a mass walkout should be able to show a serious and imminent harm from working conditions. Employees in unionized workplaces actually may have less ability to organize wildcat strikes as labor law discourages that practice in unionized workplaces.

Individual refusal to do an unsafe job

The Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act could protect an individual employee from retaliation for refusing unsafe work or opposing unsafe working conditions. Arguably, the act would also protect organizers of wildcat strikes. In some cases, reporting a workers’ compensation injury can also fall within the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act. While workers also common law protections against workers’ compensation retaliation, bringing the case under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act can entitle workers to awards of attorney fees and front pay not available in common law cases

The spread of strikes and sickouts

Mike Elk of Payday Report has written extensively about strikes and other work stoppages related to COVID-19. One of these labor actions includes a sick out by teachers in Boise, Idaho. Unfortunately, workers don’t have a lot of good options to protect themselves from unsafe conditions related to COVID-19. OSHA has been criticized for lax enforcement. Workers’ compensation laws aren’t designed to compensate workers for infectious diseases, even assuming those laws cover infectious disease at all. Finally, even though workers’ compensation is an inadequate remedy for COVID-19, the so-called exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation usually prevents workers from bringing cases directly against their employers about working conditions.

If you have a union, get involved in your union

Some workers are still fortunate enough to enjoy union representation. If you are one of those workers, join your union and get involved in your union. Unions make the workplace more democratic and allow for employee input, but unions work best when workers get involved. One of my pet peeves is listening to clients or potential clients telling me “the union doesn’t do anything.” Some unions are better than others, but even a weak union gives most employees better benefits and more job protections than they would be entitled to otherwise as an at-will employee.

Public sector labor law reform in Nebraska?

Public sector employees cannot strike in Nebraska. Nebraska law is clear on that issue unlike more ambiguous laws in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona that had teacher strikes in 2018.  Nebraska law also holds teachers and other employees can’t engage in work slow downs or sickouts. In fact it is a crime to even advocate or advise public sector employees on workplace strikes and slowdowns and to support strike funds. While Nebraska laws on public sector strikes may be vulnerable to some First Amendment challenges, public sector strikes and work slowdowns remain a very risky proposition for participants.

So will Nebraska reform public sector labor law to harmonize with federal law or to make it less punitive towards public sector workers protesting unsafe working conditions? I think that’s a doubtful proposition. The rules of the Nebraska Unicameral require broad support for legislation. For example, expanded protections for essential workers were killed by what amounts to a filibuster by a bloc of right-wing senators.

Nebraska is also one of the few states that hasn’t adopted charter schools which are opposed by teachers’ unions. I’m not sure that the Nebraska State Education Association, the union representing teachers in Nebraska, would want to risk alienating support for public schools with proposals that could seem radical to many Nebraskans, including teachers.

But ultimately increased labor militancy among teachers and other public sector workers could help preserve the role of bargaining for public sector employees. In 2011, some in the business community sought to weaken public sector unions. That effort ultimately failed. I think a newly energized labor movement among teachers makes it more likely that future efforts to weaken public sector unions in Nebraska will fail 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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