Restore the Safety Net: 2016 WCA Legislative Agenda

Over the past two decades, the social safety net has been steadily eroded for working New Yorkers who are injured on the job. The workers’ compensation system is the first – and many times the only – resource for lost wages and medical treatment caused by workplace injuries and illnesses. Sadly, these protections have been drastically reduced as the result of past legislation, regulation, and administrative change.

It is vitally important that the social safety net, and particularly the workers’ compensation system, be restored to protect vulnerable injured and disabled workers. These workers are entitled to due process of law and to meaningful compensation for their lost wages, medical treatment. And because the workers’ compensation system no longer provides an adequate remedy for their loss of other legal remedies, the system must be reformed to permit these workers to be made whole where their employer broke the law or was grossly negligent. We therefore propose eight meaningful legislative reforms that will help to restore the safety net for working New Yorkers who are injured on the job.

1.Reduce the threshold for safety net eligibility. The threshold for safety net consideration should be reduced from loss of wage earning capacity in excess of eighty percent to loss of wage earning capacity in excess of fifty percent. Workers who have been determined to lose more than half of their pre-accident wage earning capacity and have been unable to return to work should be eligible for safety net evaluation.

2.“Voluntary withdrawal from the labor market” should be defined. The statute should be amended to define the circumstances in which an injured worker must demonstrate that he or she is “attached to the labor market” as a condition of receiving benefits.

3.Index the minimum weekly rate to the maximum weekly benefit rate. The failure to index the minimum benefit rate ensures that it will become inadequate in the intermediate or long term absent continued legislative oversight and statutory correction. This can be obviated by fixing the minimum rate at 25% of the maximum rate.

4.The Medical Treatment Guidelines should be eliminated. The existing statutory procedure makes more treatment available to injured workers with less administrative process and at a lower expense than that directed by the Medical Treatment Guidelines. The WCA supports A3356.

5.Schedule loss awards should be in addition to awards for temporary disability. The current schedule loss evaluation system should be preserved, but schedule loss awards should be paid in addition to compensation for temporary disability (as under the Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act), rather than having such compensation deducted from the schedule loss award.

6.The Board should hold an initial hearing in every case. Participants in the system are in substantial agreement that holding an initial hearing is more efficient than the use of non-hearing determinations. More importantly, an initial hearing ensures that unrepresented workers are given adequate information about their claim, their rights, and system benefits, and that they have a meaningful opportunity to be heard by the Board.

7.Limit “exclusive remedy” protection for employers. The law prohibits injured workers from suing their employer, on the theory that the workers’ compensation system offers an adequate replacement. Given the caps on permanent partial disability benefits, this is no longer true in cases where the worker is significantly disabled. There is also no justification to insulate employers from liability where the worker is injured because the employer violated a statute or regulation.

8.Adopt a presumption that workers deemed totally disabled by the Social Security Administration are totally disabled in the workers’ compensation system. The Workers’ Compensation Board issued guidelines for awarding benefits in cases of permanent injury. These guidelines require consideration of the injured worker’s medical impairment, functional loss, and vocational factors. The Board’s guidelines envision prolonged and substantial litigation regarding these issues in each permanent disability case.

Most workers who are permanently disabled apply for Social Security Disability benefits. On applications for disability benefits, the Social Security Administration considers the same medical, functional, and vocational factors that the Board has included in its new guidelines. If a worker has been approved for Social Security Disability benefits based primarily on the compensable injury, then re-litigation of the same issues in the workers’ compensation case serves little or no purpose. Instead, adoption of the Social Security decision will streamline the process and avoid needless litigation costs that burden injured workers, employers, and the Board.

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