Immigration and Worker’s Compensation: How will Labor & Industries Respond?

Although recent reports suggestthat the stream of immigration from latin and south american countries has decreased significantly, some political forces want to continue to draw attention to any development that may suggest that immigrants might be receiving more benefits or consideration than natural born citizens.  As undocumented workers are not formally granted all the same protections and guaruntees given to American citizens.  In fact, when an undocumented worker is injured, they can find themselves in uncertain legal territory.  Undocumented workers tend to work more physically gruelling and perhaps dangerous occupations, and thus are particularly prone to injury.

Still, some recent rulings suggest that the courts are beginning to understand the importance of establishing some basic protections for undocumented workers injured here in the United States.

Washington DC District Courtrecently ruled that one Pamelon Gonzalez, an undocumented worker, was eligible for workers’ compensation after he suffered an injury on the job.  Mr. Gonzalez was working as a busboy when he was struck by a bottle thrown by a customer, blinding him.  The injury led to surgery and kept Mr. Gonzalez from working for some time, but when he attempted to collect benefits from the owners of the bar, they argued that undocumented workers were not eligible for workers’ comp.

Beyond the deep hypocrisy of a company benefiting from illegal labor then claiming no knowledge when forced to meet the responsibilities of that benefit, is the question of basic human rights, regardless of the country of origin.  Eventually the D.C. Appeals Court ruled in Mr. Gonzalez’s favor, citing the District’s especially liberal workers’ comp laws that place emphasis on humanitarian ends above all others.

We will continue to see how such cases play out across the country.

Does Pro-Business Mean Anti-Labor? Labor & Industries in Oklahoma

As the Labor struggle in Wisconsin makes clear, the current recession has provided impetus for those Anti-Labor forces who want to quash collective rights won over years of labor rights struggles.

And heavy-handed reforms to workers’ compensation can limit the ways workers can lawfully pursue and receive legitimate injury claims.

Oklahoma Senate Bill 878 purports to be a comprehensive approach to workers’ compensation reform.  Brian Bingman, R-Salupa said, “We are committed to reducing Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation rates and making our state more competitive for job creation in every way.  This bill is progress towards a goal of making Oklahoma more competitive economically with surrounding states.”

The provisions of the Bill include mandating a judge to render a decision within 60 days, mandatory annual reviews of disability recipients, placing more authority in the hands of medical experts when reviewing claims, and encouraging early return to work as a form of rehabilitation.

Critics are skeptical of bill’s true intent.  Barbara Hoberock reports that the bill could limit injured workers’ access to medical treatment. It ties rates of compensation for doctors treating injured workers to 120 percent of Medicare. She quotes Dr. William Gillock, who practices occupational medicine in Tulsa. “We are concerned it would eliminate access to care and affect the quality of care we can provide,” he said.  The primary concern is that the reduction of compensation would make it difficult for doctors to refer their patients to specialists who charge higher raters.

Another measure passed by the Oklahoma Senate is aimed at limiting the amount workers’ compensation lawyers can be paid to represent injured workers.  Critics like Senate Minority Leader Charles Laster argue that the resolution would force injured worker’s to stand alone against the well-funded legal teams representing insurance companies.  Although supporters argue the measure would motivate workers’ compensation lawyers to work harder on behalf of their clients to obtain larger compensation, another possible outcome is reluctance to take cases in the first place.

The Washington State legislature is also pushing major changes in workers’ compensation benefits under the banner of reducing costs to the State.  While Governor Chris Gregoire’s proposal to push workers back into “light duty” while still recovering from injuries and to offer buy-outs to injured workers does not go as far the Oklahoma measures, it does reflect the national trend to push injured workers back into the workplace perhaps before they are ready.  The Seattle Times reports the “idea is to reconnect the worker with his boss, co-workers and paycheck, instead of having him sit at home on state benefit.”  One should note that the Times’ description of a worker sitting “at home” reflects an ugly prejudice in the mass media and by politicians against the plight of the injured worker.  As anyone who has suffered a workplace injury will tell you, recovery is a physically and emotionally exhausting process.

Labor and Industries laws continue to change across the nation.  Injured workers should consult with a Seattle Workers’ Compensation Lawyer to ensure they receive the full protection of the law.

Washington Workplace Bullying Legislation: An Expansion of Workers’ Compensation Rights?

Washington Legislators are taking another look at a little known aspect of unfair labor practices: workplace bullying.  As unemployment soars and few jobs are being created, tensions in the workplace have risen.  As a result of competition for jobs, many workers are experiencing more overt forms of harassment based upon their seniority, gender, race or religion in a sometimes calculated attempt to make the worker wish to leave their employment.

However, Senator Nick Harper (D-Everett) wants to make this kind of unfair practice specifically illegal.  Alex Silverman of MyNorthwest.com reports Harper wants to “add ‘subjecting an employee to an abusive work environment’ to Washington’s list of unfair labor practices, allowing employees a legal recourse to deal with harassment in the workplace. Currently, legal action is only an option if the employee has been discriminated against because he or she is a member of a protected class, like a race, religion, or gender, said Gary Namie, director of the Bellingham-based Workplace Bullying Institute.”

The Workplace Bullying Institute is a North American nonprofit organization dedicated to the eradication of Workplace Bullying through education and research.  According to the Website, The Institute was founded after “Dr. Ruth [Namie] experienced bullying firsthand. It was at the hands of a female tyrant backed by all the institutional power of a large HMO.” The WBI sponsors  research into the nature of Workplace Bullying in North America.  A 2010 survey conducted by the WBI found these starling statistics:

  • 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand (37% in 2007, given the MOE, essentially equivalent)
  • 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women
  • Women bullies target women in 80% of cases
  • Bullying is 4X more prevalent than illegal harassment (2007)
  • The majority (68%) of bullying is same-gender harassment

The important result of Sen. Harper’s Bill is that workers would have legal recourse in the event  they experience bullying or harassment in the workplace.

One reason this issue has not come to surface earlier is that many people do not understand the severe harm caused by systemic or individual bullying over a prolonged period of time.  Beyond the obvious anxiety, sustained bullying can lead to a more recognized and serious disorder: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries acknowledges several types of experiences that can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Most obvious are incidents relating to government workers like firefighters, police, paramedics and the like.  Yet, mental distress as the result of workplace bullying and mental suffering stemming from physical injuries are also valid grounds for a workers’ compensation claim.

Bullying, unfair practices, and physical injuries in the workplace can lead to a range of symptoms associated with High stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

•    Financial problems due to absence

•    Reduced self-esteem.

•    Musculoskeletal problems.

•    Phobias.

•    Sleep disturbances.

•    Increased depression/self-blame.

•    Digestive problems.

Labor and Industries Attorneys in Seattle and Washington are watching the progress of this legislation so they can better serve clients who find themselves bullied in the workplace. If you are a worker in Seattle or Washington who believes they are experiencing these symptoms as a result of a workplace experience, contact an experienced Labor and Industries Lawyer to protect your rights.  Bullying is an important workplace problem, and workers should seek worker’s compensation benefits if they are a victim.

Workers’ Comp Backlash? Sled Dog Scandal Provokes Discussion of Worker Rights

The now notorious slaughter of 100 sled dogs in Whistler last year has provoked a number of discussions focusing on animal cruelty and welfare. A worker received workers’ compensation benefits when he suffered post-traumatic stress after culling the dogs and many labor rights activists note the basic rights of the traumatized worker are being obscured by the focus on the sled dogs.

Just last week a local animal welfare blog, Seattledogspot.com, brought a attention to a number of sites that are focusing on how the slaughter amounted to a kind of “injury” for the employee involved. Referencing a site called Workerscompnesationwashington.com, the blogger seemed skeptical that the sled dog slaughter should bring attention to the plight of workers who experience post-traumatic stress related to a work incident.  He writes,” This article just focused more on the trend of acknowledging the PTSD claims of civilian workers. While this is an important subject, it shouldn’t be mixed in with the issues raised by Fawcett’s claim.”  It should be noted that Seattledogspot.com is devoted to issues of canine welfare,and it makes sense that the blog would like the focus to remain on the dogs.  Still, a reluctance to acknowledge the very real suffering of the worker, and the possible violation of his worker rights through the leaking of his compensation claim, reflects a particular skepticism about what kinds of mental health issues should be addressed by workers’ compensation.

Darah Hansen of the Vancouver Sun notes that the Fawcett case raises the very important question “When can a worker say ‘no’ to the boss?”  The law is clear when an employer asks an employee to perform an illegal action, yet “the situation gets murkier when the demand made of an employee violates personal principles.” Hansen quotes Martin Sheard, an employment lawyer from Vancouver who notes, “Essentially the worst possible thing that could happen, just from an employment perspective, if you say ‘no’ is you could be fired and then the course could find that termination was not wrongful and you lose your wrongful dismissal pay.”

As mentioned above, the entire dog affair came to light only after the worker sought benefits related to suffering he endured after carrying out the cull.  In terms of the shifting landscape of Workers’ Compensation Law, the Fawcett reveals the many obstacles an injured worker must navigate to receive proper care: fear of employer retribution, skepticism over the injury, and a lack of understanding in the public that mental distress as the result of a work-related incident constitutes a very tangible worker injury and may be eligible for compensation.

This case played out in Canada, but the effects are sure to be felt here in the United States.  Injured workers in Washington and Seattle should seek the advice of expert Labor and Industry attorneys to address any questions they have about their claim.

Experts Debate Washington Governor’s Workers’ Comp Proposals

As states face major budget shortfalls across the country, many state officials are proposing sweeping changes to established programs that directly affect workers and unions.  Many of these proposals will be important to watch, especially those here in Washington.

As part of this trend, Governor Chris Gregoire has recently proposed major changes to Washington’s worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance programs.  One major change involves a cap on a portion of unemployment taxes at last year’s rate.  Gregoire argues this move would save employers about $300 million in 2011. As for changes to workers’ compensation in Washington, Gregoire proposes an injured worker have a chance to go back to work performing light duty, with the state paying half his wages for 66 days.

The Seattle Times notes the “idea is to reconnect the worker with his boss, co-workers and paycheck, instead of having him sit at home on state benefit.”  The Times claims such an approach has worked in Oregon, although their description of an injured worker “sitting at home” reanimates old prejudices about recovering workers.

Bert Caldwell of The Spokesman-Review applauds this part of the proposal. He has greater reservations about another part of the Governor’s plan.  He notes that Washington does not have the option to buy workers out of the workers’ comp program.  She proposes this option for workers age 55 and older who might not be retrainable and perhaps wish to move on and find new work rather than worry money earned will be docked from their pension.

While Caldwell acknowledges this will erase $720 million in workers’ comp costs off state ledgers over four years, he laments such moves are not likely to reduce 2011 insurance premiums for businesses.

As these major proposals make their way through the Washington State legislature, it is important for all workers to stay involved.  It is also important for injured workers to seek out attorneys that have up to the minute knowledge of the always changing world of workers’ comp.  Stay tuned!