COVID-19 and Social Distancing

“Social Distancing” – I bet that is not a phrase you used with regularity before this pandemic became a part of our lives! Now it’s an everyday part of our vocabulary.  Along with face masks, grocery home delivery,  hand sanitizer, and far too many workers laid off from their jobs – these are all a part of our daily lives. Stay at Home Orders and efforts to flatten the curve also mean Home Offices are our new normal.

Having a Law Practice which focuses on injured workers means we still need to be here for  workers with existing claims, new injuries, or questions about the CoronaVirus and returning to work during a pandemic. We’re all working from home – you would see my two big dogs stretched out on the floor if my camera was on. Our office phones are sitting on our Dinning Room tables. Our client files are on our laptops. We have conferences by phone, Depositions on Zoom, send letters via e-mail.  It’s all different, but it is slowly becoming our new normal.

We’re still here. Someone will answer the phone if you call. Your questions will still be answered. Your claim will still be allowed, your benefits paid, your claim litigated, your rights protected. You don’t have to leave your house. You can stay safe. We can still help you – even during a Pandemic.

Stay Well –

Office Careers – Part 2

Part 2I’m adding a link to the second part of this story about Office Careers. I will say the workers comp legal community, myself included, have been raising concerns about Office Careers to the Department for years. It’s a bit disingenuous for Rich Wilson to claim ignorance. More than a dozen times, evidence that injured workers had obtained no skills in these programs has been presented to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. 100% of those times the Judge has found in the workers favor.

If you are a injured worker, currently being retrained at Office Careers, and you have any concerns about your training program, I strongly urge you to talk to a workers comp attorney.

 

Social Media

You have a Facebook page; You tweet; You Instagram – and you have an injury at work.

BEWARE!

Whether you intend to or not – you are leaving an evidence trail. While you may believe what you are posting is just for your friends and family, the information may be discoverable. That is a fancy way of saying you may be asked or required to hand over any information which you posted or shared which, in any way, touches on your injury. That information may be used to create doubt about your injury or your work limitations. It can be used to question your credibility and your reliability as a witness.

It is not likely to be something obvious. There isn’t going to be a ‘smoking gun’ admission that you are faking the whole thing. It’s going to be something subtle. A picture of you dancing at a wedding the day after your knee injury. Sure, your knee was hurting you, but it was just one dance . . . A picture of you and your buddy at the football game (GO HAWKS!) But you just testified you can only stand for 15 minutes  . . . ? A picture of you holding your two-year old Granddaughter . . . ‘Look how big she’s gotten!” . . . . .  Well, how much does she weigh? Why can’t you return to work at your job which requires lifting the same weight?

It’s not that these activities are a secret. It’s more that defense counsel would never think to ask you about something so specific, without the picture floating around out there. The first thing a good defense attorney does when they get a new case is look up the injured worker on Facebook. If everything is private, he’s not going to see much. Maybe there follows a formal discovery request for social media posting, maybe not. That decision will depend on what’s at stake in any given litigation. But imagine the ‘Ah Ha’ moment when the the postings aren’t private. Or, there is a rich and detailed instagram record of . . well . . everything that you’ve done since the date of your injury.

Social Media is so instant. It is a very contemporaneous  record of what you are doing, saying, thinking, and sometimes even feeling.

Some of it is very, very permanent.

 

It’s complicated

If you have a Longshore claim with an unscheduled injury, your permanent disability is based on your loss of wage earning capacity. If you have a scheduled injury, your permanent disability is based on a number of weeks of compensation for that particular type of injury.

What the heck does that mean?

Well, I can provide a fairly simple explanation but in reality, it’s complicated.

First, what is the difference between a scheduled an unscheduled injury? For the most part, any injury that is not to an extremity is considered an unscheduled disability. Anything related to the spine, like a back or neck injury is unscheduled. Shoulder injuries are unscheduled. Hip injuries have been argued both ways, but I generally consider them unscheduled. Head injuries and mental health conditions like PTSD are considered unscheduled. Arms, hands, legs, feet, hearing, and vision are all scheduled injuries.

When it comes to compensation for permanent disability, or PPD, what does it mean that the injury is “unscheduled” versus “scheduled”? Scheduled injuries have a schedule of benefits outlined in the Longshore statute which are paid for permanent impairment. For example, loss of an arm is paid at 312 weeks of compensation, loss of the big toe is compensated at 38 weeks of compensation. If the injury results in the partial loss of use, then permanent impairment is compensated as a percentage. That’s why you hear things like a torn meniscus in the knee is a 2% impairment, compensation for permanent disability is paid for 2% of 288 weeks, or 5.76 weeks of compensation. So long as you can perform some type of work, any kind at all, a scheduled impairment is paid based on the schedule, without consideration of your individual circumstances. The concert pianist who losses a finger is compensated the same as the truck driver who loses a finger. That may sound unfair, but the idea is to reduce the uncertainty and litigation surrounding permanent impairments. In reality, we still have litigation and uncertainty, it is just focused on the impairment rating itself, not the established value for the loss of the scheduled member.  Having strong and credible medical support is crucial to receiving fair and just compensation for your injury.

Establishing permanent impairment for an unscheduled injury is like the wild west. Compensation for your permanent impairment when you have something like a back injury or PTSD, is based on the effect of the injury on your earning capacity. For example, you could make $40 an hour prior to the injury, but because you are now limited to lighter work, you can only make $10 per hour. Your permanent impairment is 66 2/3% of the difference between those numbers.

Comparing average weekly wage at the time of injury to post-injury earning capacity is easy as pie if you have actually returned to some type of employment after recovering from your injury. More often than not, the injured worker has not returned to work when this assessment is being made, so we are all guessing about current earning abilities. There may be competing Functional Capacity Evaluations with vastly different estimates of abilities and limitations. Transferable skills will be outlined and debated and debunked. There will be Job Analyses approved by some physicians and disapproved by others. There will be Labor Market Surveys, some accurate some bogus.

Like I said, it’s complicated. The value of your permanent impairment, and in turn the value of your claim, will most definitely rise and fall with the strength of your position on all of these factors. Your employer and its insurance carrier are going to be aggressive in developing their positions, and they will have the help of really experienced defense counsel. That doesn’t mean your sunk. It does mean you need to get your ducks lined up. As your medical condition stabilizes and you start thinking about what’s next, get some help. Talk to an attorney so you understand what’s coming, and can put your best claim forward.

 

L&I and Structured Settlements

Is a structured settlement of your L&I claim right for you? I know the department sends out form letters to injured workers who are at least 50 years old and have allowed claims informing them that they may be eligible for a structured settlement of their claim. What is a structured settlement, and is it in your best interest to “settle” your claim.

The Legislature called them structured settlements because you do not get the total agreed to amount in a lump sum. It is parceled out to you based on what can only be described as a weird formula. (payments of at least 25% but not more than 150% of the State’s average monthly wage – who makes this stuff up!?) The idea is the funds will provide a soft landing back into the world without L&I. In exchange for the settlement, your claim is closed with only the possibility of payment for future medical treatment if the claim is reopened. That means no future time-loss, vocational benefits, PPD or Pension awards. Is that a good idea for you?

Maybe – maybe not. There are a lot of things to consider.

What is the status  of your medical treatment? While a structured settlement leaves open the possibility of reopening your claim for medical treatment, moving forward with a settlement if you are still actively treating for your work injury is probably not a good idea. Reopening a claim for medical treatment can be an expensive proposition if there are any disputes about whether your condition has objectively worsened.

Are there disputes in your claim? There probably are, if you are being offered or are considering a Structured Settlement. Is there a sum of money for which it makes sense to walk away from those disputes? Perhaps. It depends on what the dispute is about, what you have to gain, and how much it may cost you out of pocket to litigate the issue. Do you have more to gain than lose? These are questions an attorney can help answer.

Can you support yourself without payments from L&I? Do you have a real plan to return to work, are you on Social Security Disability or Retirement? If L&I is out of the picture, can you make ends meet? You have to be honest with yourself about your financial situation. Whatever the amount of your Structured Settlement, it will be paid in full at some point, and there will be no further payments from L&I, no matter what your situation.

These are only a few of the things you should consider. Deciding to accept or negotiate a structured settlement is a big step. It may be right for some injured workers in some situations, but it is certainly not a one size fits all answer. Make sure you understand what is being offered and what you will be giving up. Ask questions. Get legal advice. Give yourself the best possible chance to make the right choice for your particular circumstances.

Vocational Option 2

There have been some changes to the choices you have when you have been found eligible for Vocational Retraining. You will still work with your vocational counselor to develop a retraining plan, which will include a specific job goal approved by your medical provider as appropriate for your injury. The plan will be submitted to L&I for review. Once the plan is approved you have a choice to make.

You can participate in the retraining as proposed. Or you can choice Option 2. Taking Option 2 means you will receive some additional payments (similar to your time loss), you will not participate in the retraining program, and your claim will be closed with whatever permanent impairment has been rated for your particular injury. Then, anytime in the next 5 years, you can use the training funds to pursue re-training on your own. You simple contact the department, enroll in an approved or accredited school or course, and the department will pay the costs.

Here’s where the changes are. Instead of 6 months of Option 2 additional payments, you will get 9 months. That’s an extra 3 months of biweekly payments to help provide a soft landing as your claim closes. You can also delay making the Option 2 choice. Instead of having to make the choice shortly after the retraining plan is approved, you have some time. You can actually start the retraining plan, and see how you do. Time-loss will continue while you are participating in retraining. Anytime within the first quarter of training, or within 3 months, you can decide to stop participating in the program and elect Option 2. At that point the 9 months of payments will be reduced by the amount of time loss paid starting with the first day of the retraining program, and you will be entitled to the remainder of the Option 2 payments

This change allows you to try out a retraining program, see how you do, decide whether the program is a good fit, and then make a more informed decision about whether to continue the retraining. For most injured workers, school days are a distant memory. The routine of going to class, studying, completing assignments, and taking tests can be an overwhelming idea.  Now you can try it on for size without losing the benefit of the Option 2 payments.

Whether to take Option 2 or participate in retraining is an important decision. There are a lot of factors you should consider. (That’s another post!) This change allows you to take a bit more time and, hopefully, make the decision which is best for you. If you do not already have an attorney, this may be a good time to make an appointment and ask some questions.