Tag Archives: work injuries

Why A Homeowner Should Know About Complying With Workers' Compensation Laws

Workers' compensation laws protect people who are injured on the job. They are designed to make sure that employees who are injured or disabled on the job are provided with fixed monetary awards, removing the need for litigation.

The California Labor Code essentially tells us that anyone working for a homeowner will be an employee unless you can prove otherwise. Further, California Law tells employers — the homeowner in this case — that they must purchase workers' compensation insurance when any employee works for them.

The standard home policy, with liability insurance, includes coverage for “occasional workers' comp risks.” By “occasional,” the policy would be intended to provide insurance for your gardener that swings by once a week or your housekeeper that comes in twice a month, or other folks who perform small tasks at your home. The “occasional worker” is defined as someone who performs less than 10 hours outside of the house work or 20 hours inside of the house work.

When the homeowner is going to reach these thresholds, they should contact their insurance agent to change their Homeowner's policy to cover these new events. The costs for this change can vary quite considerably between companies, but it has been my experience that the additional charges are a fraction of the cost of worker's comp for a business operation.

How do you avoid all of these potential risks and threats, plus involvement in the insurance industry? Here is a short list of steps to simplify your life and avoid becoming an employer. First, hire licensed and insured contractors who have their own workers' compensation insurance. Next, hire other service providers who are licensed, if appropriate, and insured.

Any company or contractor that you hire should have liability and workers' compensation insurance. How to know if they are insured? This is the crucial point to understand. Before any organization, business or contractor begins work for you, ask them to provide you with a Certificate of Insurance which will list all of their insurance policies. This certificate will show that, on that date, there is a list of the insurance policies this business has in place listing their insurance companies, the amounts and types of insurance, and the dates the policy started and are to end.

The homeowner, to further protect themselves, should be listed as a Certificate Holder on this certificate. The Liability insurance listed on the certificate should list the homeowner as an Additional Insured, and the page of their insurance policy that confirms this is to be attached to the certificate.

The workers' compensation insurance should show that the business has provided a Waiver of Subrogation Endorsement on their policy. A waiver of subrogation endorsement requires one party on the contract to waive their right to sue for and recover damages from the other party.

In short, what do these worker's compensation terms mean to the homeowner?

First, the Additional Insured means the insurance for the hired business will provide you with some protection on their policy before your insurance policy may be involved in a claim.

Next, the Waiver of Subrogation means that when the businesses' employee is injured at the homeowner's home, the workers' comp insurance company paying for the employee's treatment can't come back to the homeowner to recover what they have paid injured workers.

When in doubt, call your insurance agent to guide you through this process. There are many talented and knowledgeable insurance agents who can help you. So, ask!

California homeowners have a duty to be aware of the workers' compensation rules to avoid fines and penalties. This knowledge can help them avoid legal problems in case a worker gets injured on their property.

Oklahoma And Beyond: Significant State Workers' Compensation Reforms In 2013

The cost of providing workers’ compensation insurance is one of the top issues for companies of all sizes and across industries. Because it is regulated at the state level, companies need to stay abreast of issues in any state in which they do business. To date in 2013, nine states have seen significant workers’ compensation reform bills signed into law. Highlights from the legislation in each of the nine states follows.

Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation reform laws have received the most attention lately because of the inclusion of an opt-out provision, known as the Oklahoma Option. This legislation takes effect on February 14, 2014, and applies only to injuries occurring on or after January 01, 2014.

The ability to opt out has been a significant component of the Texas workers’ compensation system for a number of years. Wyoming also has a limited opt-out provision. Approximately one-third of employers in Texas participate in the opt-out, including many large national retailers. The significant cost savings employers saw in Texas was one of the driving forces behind the Oklahoma Option.

The Oklahoma Option’s application form is significantly different from that in Texas. Employers that opt out in Texas cannot simply endorse their excess liability policy to cover Oklahoma. Rather, employers in Oklahoma that choose the option are required to provide a written benefit plan that serves as a replacement for the workers’ compensation coverage. This benefit plan must provide for full replacement of all indemnity benefits offered in the workers’ compensation system. The plan can be self-insured, or coverage can be purchased from a licensed carrier. At this time, carriers are developing policies to provide both first-dollar and excess self-insurance coverage for the benefit plans under the Oklahoma Option.

The key component of the Oklahoma Option for employers is that it gives them full control of the medical treatment through their benefits plan. More than 60% of workers’ compensation costs are medical treatment. With full medical control, employers will be able to ensure that injured workers receive the appropriate medical care from medical providers who follow widely accepted occupational medicine treatment protocols. This will eliminate doctor shopping, which is a significant cost driver in many states. The hope is that full employer medical control will eliminate unnecessary treatment, produce shorter periods of disability, and ultimately improve medical outcomes for the injured workers.

Unlike the Texas opt-out, the Oklahoma Option does not permit employees to pursue a negligence action through the civil courts. Workers’ compensation is usually the exclusive remedy for an injured worker for any work-related injuries. In other words, the employee cannot usually pursue a separate tort action in civil court. In Texas, injured workers for employers who opted-out are free to pursue remedy in the civil courts. With the Oklahoma Option, any litigation must proceed through the normal workers’ compensation administrative processes. This exclusive remedy has a narrow exception for injuries that were intentionally caused by the employer. Attorneys will have to overcome this very high burden of proof in order to pursue a civil complaint for a work injury.

Another difference between the Oklahoma and Texas opt-out scenarios is that the Oklahoma system is backed by a guarantee fund, which provides benefit payments in the event that a carrier or self-insured employer becomes insolvent and is unable to continue paying claims. The Oklahoma Option coverage offers guarantee funds for both self-insured employers and carriers. These are separate from the workers’ compensation guarantee funds.

The Oklahoma reforms also include the switch from a court-based system to an administrative system. Oklahoma was one of the few remaining states where all workers’ compensation disputes were adjudicated in the civil courts. Civil litigation is both very expensive and time-consuming. This change to an administrative system should reduce employer costs associated with litigation and produce more timely decisions, which are key elements of controlling claims costs.

Overall, the changes made in Oklahoma are positively viewed by employers and should improve Oklahoma’s ranking as a top ten state for loss costs.

Delaware
The recently passed reform bill in Delaware was designed to control medical costs and encourage return-to-work efforts.

Medical cost savings will be achieved by:

  • Suspending for two-years the annual inflation increase on medical fees.
  • Lowering the inflation index on hospital fees.
  • Creating new cost-control provisions on pharmaceuticals.
  • Establishing a statute of limitations for appealing utilization review decisions.
  • Expanding the fee schedule to capture items that were previously exempted.

Other changes included more emphasis on return-to-work efforts, which will be considered in calculating the workplace credit safety program.

These changes are expected to lower employer workers’ compensation costs in Delaware.

Florida
The use of physician-dispensed medication has been a significant issue in Florida workers’ compensation. Physicians were charging several times what the same medication would cost from a retail pharmacy, and the costs were not regulated by a fee schedule. SB 662, which was recently signed into law, creates a maximum reimbursement rate for physician-dispensed medication of 112.5% of the average wholesale price, plus an $8 dispensing fee. Although the bill is expected to produce cost savings for employers in Florida, the fee schedule amount for physician-dispensed medications is still significantly higher than that for the same medications at retail pharmacies. There are savings; however, this will continue to be a cost driver in the state.

Another issue impacting workers’ compensation costs in Florida is that the First District Court of Appeals, in two separate rulings, has found sections of the workers’ compensation statutes unconstitutional. Under the Westphal decision (Bradley Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, No. 1D12-3563, February 2013), the court decided that the 104-week cap on temporary total disability (TTD) benefits was “unfair” and violated the state’s constitutional right to access the court and “receive justice without denial or delay.” Injured workers are currently limited to 260 weeks of TTD benefits, which was the cap under the prior law. There is concern that the arguments used in Westphal could also be used to invalidate the 260-week limit. The Court has agreed to review this decision en banc, so the ruling is not final.

In the Jacobson case (Jacobson v. Southeast Personnel Leasing, Case 1D12-1103, June 5, 2013), the court found unconstitutional a section of the Act that prevented injured workers from hiring an attorney for motions for costs on disputed claims, as this violated their right to due process.

The Jacobson case is very narrow in scope and has limited impact, but the Westphal decision has potential to significantly increase employer costs. With these cases, there is growing concern in Florida that attacks on the constitutionality of the workers’ compensation statutes will continue, further eroding prior reforms that produced significant employer savings.

Despite savings produced via the fee schedule for physician-dispensed medications, if the court upholds the decision in Westphal, the associated costs will outweigh any savings from the recent legislation.

Georgia
Legislation passed in Georgia should have a positive impact on workers’ compensation costs for employers. Effective July 1, 2013, medical benefits for non-catastrophic cases are capped at 400 weeks from the date of accident, whereas previously, injured workers were entitled to lifetime medical benefits for all claims. This change significantly shortens the claims tail for non-catastrophic cases. By eliminating exposure for lifetime medical coverage on all claims, it also reduces the potential exposure on any Medicare Set-Aside, as Medicare’s rights on a workers’ compensation claims are confined to the parameters of the state law.

In order to receive this concession from labor on the medical costs, employers agreed to increase the indemnity rates for temporary partial disability (TPD) and TTD. The indemnity rate increases are as follows:

  • TPD: $334 to $350 for a period not exceeding 350 weeks from the date of injury.
  • TTD: $500 to $525 per week for a period not exceeding 400 weeks from the date of accident.

Indemnity rates in Georgia had not increased since 2007.

Another change involves a requirement that an injured worker make a legitimate effort to return to work when a modified-duty position is offered. The employee must complete a full work shift or eight hours, whichever is longer. If the injured worker feels that he or she is unable to work beyond that, benefits must be reinstated and the burden is on the employer to show the work offered was suitable. If the employee does not complete that full shift, then the burden of proof does not shift back to the employer and the employer can suspend benefits.

The cost savings from capping the medical benefits is expected to slightly outweigh the cost increases associated with the indemnity maximum rate increase. Thus, the net impact to employers should be a slight reduction in workers’ compensation costs.

Indiana
Research indicates that workers’ compensation medical fee schedules lower medical costs. In Indiana, legislation was passed that establishes a hospital fee schedule at 200% of Medicare rates. This is consistent with other states that base their fee schedules on Medicare rates. The bill also capped the price for repackaged drugs and surgical implants. Since repackaged drugs and surgical implants were previously outside the fee schedule, these caps will help to reduce employer costs. The fee schedule takes effect on July 1, 2014.

The legislation also included changes to indemnity benefits:

  • Gradual average weekly wage (AWW) increase of 20% over three years, beginning with a 6% increase on July 1, 2014, and up to 20% over current AWW by July 1, 2016.
  • An increase of 25% in permanent partial impairment or disability (PPI or PPD), from $1,400 per degree from 1 to 10 degrees to $1,750, gradually over three years. Higher PPI ratings, above 10 degrees, increased from 16% to 22% incrementally over the same period.

Indiana had not increased its maximum indemnity benefit for many years, so the general consensus is that the increase was overdue.

Given that medical costs typically account for 60% of the total workers’ compensation expenditure, the decrease in medical costs from these reforms should offset the increase in indemnity benefits. The expectation is that this legislation will produce a small degree of savings for employers.

Minnesota
Minnesota joined most other states in amending its statutes to allow for mental-mental injuries (a psychiatric disorder without a physical injury). The law provides that the employee must be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist in order to qualify for benefits. However, PTSD is not recognized as a work injury if it results from good faith disciplinary action, layoff, promotion/demotion, transfer, termination, or retirement.

Other changes include a cap on job development benefits and a restructuring of how attorney fees are paid. There is also an increased cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for permanently disabled workers and an increase on the maximum indemnity rate. Lastly, rulemaking authority is now in place to include narcotic contracts as a factor in determining if long-term opioid or other scheduled medication use is compensated.

The job development benefits and narcotic use in Minnesota are significant cost drivers, so these are positive limitations for employers. However, the increase in indemnity rates, COLA, and coverage of mental-mental claims all add to employer costs. Thus, a slight overall increase in claim costs is expected as the result of the legislation passed in 2013.

Missouri
Missouri’s reforms were focused on addressing the insolvent second injury fund and returning occupational disease claims to the workers’ compensation system.

The Missouri Second Injury Fund has been plagued by problems for several years. It was heavily utilized by injured workers to supplement permanent partial disability awards. The fund became insolvent when prior reforms capped assessments that were supporting it while not reducing the claims that were covered by it. Under these new reforms, which are effective January 01, 2014, PPD claims are excluded from the second injury fund. Access to the fund will be limited to permanent total disability (PTD) claims where the total disability was caused by a combination of a work injury and a pre-existing disability. In addition, employer assessments to cover the funds’ liabilities are increased by no more than 3% of net premiums. These increased assessments expire December 2021.

The new law also indicates that occupational diseases are exclusively covered under the workers’ compensation statutes with some exceptions, which are noted below. The Act also establishes psychological stress of police officers as an occupational disease under workers’ compensation.

Bringing occupational disease claims back under workers’ compensation came at a cost. Trial lawyers in Missouri had significant influence in crafting this legislation. The act defines “occupational diseases due to toxic exposure” and creates an expanded benefit for occupational diseases due to toxic exposure other than mesothelioma — equal to 200% of the state’s average weekly wage for 100 weeks to be paid by the employer. For mesothelioma cases, an additional 300% of the state’s average weekly wage for 212 weeks shall be paid by employers and employer pools that insure mesothelioma liability. These expanded benefits are in addition to any other traditional workers’ compensation benefits that are paid. Also, these enhanced benefits are a guaranteed payout to the injured worker or his or her estate. It is very unusual to see guaranteed payout of benefits in workers’ compensation, so there is potential that this will lead to an increase in toxic exposure claims being filed under workers’ compensation.

In addition, employers will no longer have subrogation rights on toxic exposure cases. This is a potentially significant issue. Often, attorneys do not bother filing for workers’ compensation on such cases, as their focus is on larger awards available on the tort side. Attorneys know any workers’ compensation benefits have to be repaid under subrogation. There is concern from some employers and defense attorneys that eliminating subrogation rights will actually encourage filing more toxic exposure claims under workers’ compensation.

The establishment of a “Meso Fund” is also creating confusion. Employers must opt into this fund, and it is supported by additional assessments against the employers in an amount needed to cover the liabilities. If an employer does not opt into the Meso Fund, their liability for a mesothelioma claim is not subject to the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy and action may be pursued in the civil courts. Most employers do not have exposure to mesothelioma claims, so it is expected that the only employers who will join the Meso Fund are those who frequently see such claims and are looking to spread their risk to others.

Between the increased assessments, expanded benefits for toxic exposure, and the loss of subrogation on toxic exposure cases, it is expected that this legislation will increase costs for employers in Missouri.

New York
Governor Cuomo has indicated that the workers’ compensation reform legislation he recently signed into law will reduce employer costs by about $800 million annually. These savings are derived primarily by streamlining the assessment collection process and eliminating the 25-a fund and its associated assessments. New York’s workers’ compensation assessments are the highest in the nation, so employers welcome any relief in this area.

Many employers are questioning whether this legislation provides any real savings. Because the streamlining process is not known, whether or not assessments will be significantly lowered is still unclear.

The 25-a fund covered claims that were reopened for future medical treatment. Eliminating this fund does not save employers money. As occurred when the 15-8 fund (second injury fund) was eliminated under the last reforms, the claims previously paid by these funds will now be paid by employers directly, so there is no net savings realized. In addition, running off the 15-8 and 25-a funds will take several years, so the assessments — in particular those for the 15-8 — will continue. Because of the continued assessments, shutting down these funds will actually increase employer costs in the short-term. The long- term impact should be cost neutral, with the employers paying the claim costs directly, instead of through assessments.

Finally, the minimum weekly indemnity benefit was increased from $100 to $150. This will have a negative impact on employers who hire part-time workers earning near the minimum wage.

Until the impact of the streamlined assessments is known, it is impossible to quantify the overall impact this bill will have on employers. However, after the legislation passed, the New York Insurance Rating Board recommended a double-digit rate increase for the second consecutive year, indicating that they are skeptical the law will produce significant savings.

Tennessee
Tennessee also moved its workers’ compensation dispute resolution process from a court-based system to an administrative system, leaving Alabama as the only state that still uses the trial courts for all such litigation. As mentioned in regard to Oklahoma, this should reduce employer costs associated with litigation and provide more timely resolution of disputes.

Tennessee also amended its law to provide for strict statutory construction of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The law previously required that close disputes be adjudicated in favor of the injured worker. The switch means that the administrative courts no longer can favor either party and must strictly follow the statutes. In theory, this should lead to a much narrower interpretation of the statutes and reduce the courts’ expansion of what is covered under workers’ compensation. However, strict construction can work against the employer if the language in the statutes is vague. For example, several years ago Missouri switched to strict construction, which resulted in some unintended consequences. The courts in Missouri issued many decisions that were unfavorable to employers because the statutes in Missouri did not strictly indicate that occupational disease was subject to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation or that permanent total disability benefits stopped at the death of the injured workers.

Calculation of permanent partial disability (PPD) has also been changed in the new Tennessee law. The multipliers for not returning an injured worker to employment have been eliminated in favor of a system based primarily on the impairment rating. Overall, PPD is expected to decrease under the new system. Until cases are adjudicated under the new system, however, this remains to be seen.

Tennessee also now requires a higher burden of proof on causation. Employees must prove that the workplace is the primary cause of any injury, meaning that the employment contributed more than 50% percent in causing the injury. This is expected to significantly reduce claims where an employee’s pre-existing conditions are the main cause of the work injury.

Finally, a medical advisory committee was created to develop treatment guidelines for common workers’ compensation injuries. In other states, these treatment guidelines have helped to lower medical costs. Until these guidelines are actually in place, the exact impact is unknown.

The workers’ compensation legislation in Tennessee was designed to make the state more attractive for businesses. Employers should see lower costs as the result of the reforms.

Pending Legislation
At the time of this article, some state legislatures were still in session with pending workers’ compensation bills. It is important for companies to stay informed on state-level changes to workers’ compensation laws as they can have significant impact on costs and approaches to managing this key risk area.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank members of the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN) for their assistance with this article. They are a tremendous resource in my efforts to monitor workers’ compensation developments nationwide.

Cumulative Trauma (CT) – The "Wearing Out" Disease

It is time to revisit and re-evaluate the value of this statutory condition (L/C 3208.1), which is rapidly becoming yet another undue burden on both employers as well as the workers' compensation system. Cumulative Trauma claims are currently being used, and in many instances abused, by disgruntled employees who are no longer on the payroll. By filing Post-Termination Cumulative Trauma claims, employees are circumventing the legitimate needs of businesses to make personnel decisions based on the employer's current financial situation and needs.

One need only look at the increase in Cumulative Trauma claims that are being filed after an employee has been laid off. While there has been no specific injury that they can point to, many are now claiming that “work” has worn them out and that they are therefore entitled to even more money than that which was bargained for as a part of their employment agreement.

I would not argue that there are no real and viable events that can lead to a compensable situation. Asbestosis would be the best example of an occupational disease that was unknown to either management or their employees for many years. Litigation over asbestosis has been ongoing since then, and I believe that the compensation awarded to injured workers in such cases is justified.

However, when an employee who is hired to do a job that produces no discernible injuries and who has been laid off for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons is able to work around the system by claiming a cumulative injury, it is time to reassess the value of that part of the Labor Code. We must decide if both parties to this equation are being properly served. Or, is this an abuse of the system that has been allowed to fester too long?

As a starting point for this discussion, when someone is hired for a job whether it is for either brain or brawn, the employer is taking on the whole person as he/she finds them. When the employee arrives at the jobsite, he/she does not simply place their body in the corner to rest while some mysterious spirit does their job. Employers hire the entire package as he/she finds them and is responsible for same. I would then point out that whether or not we like it, all of us are “wearing-out” as the years pass. The question then is, “Why should an employer be responsible for the normal aging process vs. being responsible for a specific injury?” I argue that they should not.

I therefore offer three possible options for consideration. Any or all of these will allow legitimate cumulative injuries to be raised as part of the work bargain while at the same time making employees responsible for their own “wearing out.”

  • Take “cumulative” claims out of L/C [Section 3208.1(b)] so that it reads: “An injury may be either specific or cumulative occurring as the result of one or a series of incidents or exposure which causes disability or the need for medical treatment” and then remove cumulative trauma from L/C 5412 and place it under 5411.

    This will allow employees to file a cumulative trauma claim just as they would a specific injury. This would also place the burden of proof on the employee to show, just as they must now with a specific injury. In other words, what extraordinary events of employment occurred thereby showing how this cumulative trauma is more than just part of the normal “wearing out/aging” process we all face every day.

  • Change the definition of a Cumulative Trauma injury to more closely mirror that of psych/stress claims (L/C 3208.3). In other words, let the employee show how the preponderance of actual work, absent the normal aging process, had caused a “disability” which should be covered.
  • Since the employer is hiring the entire package, we should set up a “depletion” allowance funded by the employee. There should be a percentage taken from each dollar earned which is placed in a fund similar to a 401K. It will belong to the employee and will be portable so that it follows him/her throughout their working career. At the time they become eligible for Social Security, they would have access to this additional fund of dollars. This would result in taking the burden of the normal aging process off the backs of employers.

Regardless of which of these or any others the legislature feels would be the best solution to this growing problem, the real point is that this is currently just another further drain on employers and therefore the California economy and needs to be addressed.

Baseline Testing: Book End Solution – Does It Qualify as Business Necessity?

Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 which included the terms “job-related and consistent with business necessity” in Section 703(k) of Title VII as part of a Congressional compromise. The amendment to the act which went into effect in 2008 did not affect the business necessity provision.

Case law regarding business necessity is very limited; however, a recent case in point is Atkins v. Salazar, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 25238 (5th Cir., Dec. 12, 2011), in which the Fifth Circuit issued an instructive opinion analyzing the business necessity defense in the context of diabetes.

The Fifth Circuit described the business necessity standard as follows:

For a qualification to be “job-related,” “the employer must demonstrate that the qualification standard is necessary and related to 'the specific skills and physical requirements of the sought-after position.'” Similarly, for a qualification standard to be “consistent with business necessity,” the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs.

The court further noted, based on an earlier ruling, that it must “take into account the magnitude of possible harm as well as the probability of occurrence … the probability of the occurrence is discounted by the magnitude of its consequences.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, not only must a medical exam be job-related, it must also be consistent with business necessity. This means that the medical exam must relate to the essential functions of the job. The medical exam must test the ability to perform the primary functions of the job. For example, if you are a cashier at a grocery store, the essential functions of your job would be to ring people up and help them bag their items. Any medical exam your employer required would have to be related to how you perform those functions in order to be consistent with business necessity. It is important to note that as long as the medical exam evaluates some function of the job, it should satisfy the elements of business necessity.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer may have the ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examination. After the applicant is given a conditional job offer, but before starting work, an employer may make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations, regardless of whether they are related to the job, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same job category (post-offer). After employment has commenced, an employer may make disability-related inquiries and require medical examinations only if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all medical information obtained during such inquiries or testing be treated as confidential medical information. While this provision covers all employees, only disability-related inquiries and medical examinations are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act's restrictions. A disability-related inquiry is defined as asking questions or testing that is designed to elicit information about a person's disability. Therefore, questions or testing that is not designed to ask or evaluate information about an individual's disability are not prohibited under the ADA.

A medical test as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual's physical or mental impairments or health. Factors that determine if it is a medical test include:

  • whether the test is administered by a health care professional;
  • whether the test is interpreted by a health care professional;
  • whether the test is designed to reveal an impairment or physical or mental health;
  • whether the test is invasive;
  • whether the test measures an employee's performance of a task or measures his/her physiological responses to performing the task;
  • whether the test normally is given in a medical setting; and,
  • whether medical equipment is used.

The topic of medical testing, especially functional testing, is a controversial subject. In the fall of 2009 two major case precedents brought to light these very issues — Indergard vs. Georgia Pacific and the class action lawsuit brought against Sears. On September 29, 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a record-setting consent decree resolving a class lawsuit against Sears, Roebuck and Co. under the Americans with Disabilities Act for $6.2 million.

These recent rulings bear out that the Functional Capacity Evaluation (FCE) may be a medical exam. Even when classified as medical evaluations, Functional Capacity Evaluations don't physically correlate with true physiological function. The issue becomes whether or not these tests are able to accurately or objectively test for functionality. These rulings illustrate that Functional Capacity Evaluations that contain validity measurements that are subjective observations, do not correlate with effort and are not consistent with affected body parts are not legally defensible.

As we have seen with the Indergad and Sears cases, courts are examining these issues closely and unless there is an objective assessment, the employer or carrier is left virtually unprotected. For ADA compliance, the testing needs to be repeatable, objective, and address functionality.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer may not require a current employee to undergo a medical examination unless the examination “is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d) (4) (A). This section applies to all employees, whether or not they are disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Indergard decision clearly demonstrates the need for an objective measure of performance that must conform with business necessity.

In addition, recent case law — EEOC vs. Celadon Trucking — illustrates that if an individual does not meet the essential functions of the job, an employer needs to enter into the interactive process for the position for which they were applying or for any other open position for which the candidate is qualified.

Given all the legal mandates for the ADA and EEOC, coupled with state workers' compensation laws and Federal Mandatory reporting issues for work-related injuries, why do post-offer pre-placement tests? A better solution is baseline testing or a book end solution.

The Americans with Disabilities Act regulates testing that has the potential to evaluate a disability. So if a baseline test is non-invasive, captures the essential functions of the job with not only a reliable validity measurement but with an objective assessment of the muskuloskeltal system and is not read at the time of testing, it is not only acceptable under ADA but technically outside the scope. Why? Data is not evaluated at the time of the baseline test so no disability is identified and no medical questions are asked. It can be done at post-offer or with existing employees.

The book end solution is completed when there is a work-related incident, another test is performed under the workers' compensation pending case, and the results are compared. In the work-related case, the medical evaluation post loss test is allowed and not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Appropriate releases are signed prior to conducting the baseline testing, and the data is kept confidential. If no work-related injury occurs, the baseline data is never interpreted.

In summary, according to the Fifth Circuit ruling in the Atkins case, for a qualification standard to be “consistent with business necessity,” the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs. The business needs in the case of baseline tests are to provide better and faster treatment for the injured worker and to accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment.

The Changing Insurance Marketplace And How It Can Affect How Employers Manage Costs

Workers' compensation insurance, like other employee benefits programs, continue to be a major expense to most employers. Decision makers are always looking for ways to better manage their cost, but sometimes the containment can be out of their influence.

For many years, employers enjoyed lower workers' comp rates as a result of reforms signed by our previous Governor and the competitive nature of the California insurance marketplace. Late last year, the workers' comp market began to change and insurance companies began to raise rates and become more selective about which employers they would keep or consider as new customers. Rising medical costs to treat injuries, increases in the insurance company costs of doing business, as well as lower returns of investment by insurance companies also led to this market shift.

Employers who had a series of injury claims, or even a large claim, also experienced greater increases in their workers' comp premium, because of the way their Workers' Comp Experience Modification Factor calculation was changed.

As a result of these premium increases, there has been a move by employers to seriously consider a Professional Employer Organization (PEO) to take the place of their workers' comp and employee benefits programs. A Professional Employer Organization is an arrangement where an employer essentially transfers their employees to another organization who then “leases” them back to their organization. This may relieve employers of direct involvement in the management of employees, but they still retain responsibilities as a “co-employer.”

Professional Employer Organizations have historically been an alternative to employers who have had a history of claims, because the Professional Employer Organization companies seem to offer lower costs. In my experience, most Professional Employer Organizations organizations offered little or no reduction in the number and severity of work injuries and resulted in a continued increase in the employer's Experience Modification Factor.

To obtain up to date marketing information about how the major Professional Employer Organization organization view this changing insurance marketplace and how they are planning to respond to these changes, my firm's specialist contacted the seven Professional Employer Organization organizations that are utilized. The following information was obtained and it is being passed on to you, because this segment of employment and insurance providers is important for employers to know so they can make a more informed decision when considering the use of a Professional Employer Organization:

  • Those employers who are unprofitable to a Professional Employer Organization are receiving rate increases in their insurance premiums and/or administrative fees to make them profitable to the Professional Employer Organization
  • For those unprofitable employers who are not accepting the rate increases, they are being non-renewed. This action is very rare, but is a sign that the Professional Employer Organization marketplace, like the workers' comp insurance companies, are taking actions to become more profitable.
  • Professional Employer Organizations only seem to consider new employers that have at least 10 full time employees
  • The annual employees' compensation must average at least $30,000
  • Professional Employer Organizations are dropping certain industries where the PEOs have encountered consistent non profitability

This information update causes us to conclude that employers who are historically financial losers to the insurance industry are also losers to the Professional Employer Organization organizations.

It can no longer be assumed that a Professional Employer Organization is always a viable alternative to employers who are not controlling their cost of work injuries.

Claims-prone employers who feel they can just “shop” every year to get the lowest rate will probably have a rude awakening.

What are some of changes that employers need to make to avoid a history of frequent and costly work-related injuries to keep employees from becoming “patients” of the workers' comp medical system?

  • Accept that workers' comp is a way to finance claims
  • Understand that you, as the employer, are ultimately paying for each work injury — have a claim and you the employer pays it back plus more
  • Take the selection of employees and safety in the workplace more seriously — match the characteristics of the job with the characteristics of the candidate being considered
  • Take an active role in the claims process
  • Train employees in safe work practices and hold them and their supervisors accountable
  • Maintain a respectful and positive relationship with employees
  • Create an open working relationship with a medical clinic that practices “evidenced based medical treatment”
  • If you do not have the resources to make changes, hire the appropriate insurance advisor to help them

The decisions employers make will determine how profitable their enterprise will be and ultimately will influence the financial value of their business. This is one of those times where appropriate decisions need to be made. The organization's financial success and the welfare of those who are employed by the enterprise are in the “hands” of the company's leaders. Let's hope the best decisions are made.