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Nuts and Bolts of Workers’ Comp

November 21, 2011
By Bendix Anderson

A conference on Workers’ Compensation became a call to arms November 12 at “The Nuts and Bolts of Navigating New York State’s Workers’ Compensation System.” “You really need to be more involved,” said Lee Clarke, Chair of the Workers’
Compensation Committee for the New York State Committee on Safety and Occupational Health (NYCOSH), which organized the conference. 

New York State Assemblyman Rory Lancman

“You have a rogue Workers’ Compensation Board right now,” said Clarke, who is also the Safety and Health Director for District Council 37, AFSCME, which hosted the conference at its offices in downtown Manhattan.

The 100 workers and labor representatives who attended the conference received a briefing on the recent changes to New York’s workers’ compensation system, information on how to navigate increasingly adversarial hearings and a reminder that the worker compensation system is supposed to work for both workers and employers.

“You’re going to learns the ABCs of worker’s comp,” said Clarke. “Hopefully you’ll get a little upset.”

New reforms
The news about workers’ comp isn’t all bad — legislators recently increased the maximum weekly benefit that the system can provide for the first time in decades. The maximum benefit is now indexed to two-thirds of the average weekly wage in New York State. That’s great news, since future increases to the maximum benefit with keep pace with growth in wages. However, the increase doesn’t affect workers injured before the rate increase. The new guidelines also cap benefits at four to ten years, even for people who are permanently disabled by injuries on the job.

New medical guidelines also limit care for many injuries to four to six weeks. But many injuries need physical therapy for months to properly heal. It often requires a variance from the judge at a workers compensation hearing to get that care. “The judge will need to hear that the case is unique,” said Robert Grey, managing partner of the law firm of Grey & Grey. That’s a challenge, since the medical guidelines mean that many, many workers comp cases need variances to get the necessary care – it’s difficult to seem unique in a crowd.

“You can’t navigate the system without a lawyer. That tells you right away that the system is broken,” said New York State Assemblyman Rory Lancman, chair of the Assembly Sub-Committee on Workplace Safety. He explained the workers compensation system was created as an alternative to the law courts as a simple, no-fault system. “That, by definition, means you shouldn’t have hearings with lawyers going at each other.”

Under the system, workers give up the right to sue employers for damages caused by the pain and suffering they experience or for punitive damages for employer negligence. “Workers’ Compensation is not a special privilege,” said Lanceman. “You can do pretty well as an individual suing employers though the tort system.”

What to do
Workers also got a reminder of what to do if they get hurt on the job. “A lot of the burden is on workers to know their rights,” said Grey. First, always report the accident to an employer, even if the accident doesn’t seem that serious. Second, be sure to file your claim with the Workers’ Compensation Board by filling out a C-3 claim form. Third, see a doctor who works in the worker’s compensation system and will fill out a C-4 workers compensation form.

The attorneys also reminded attendees that they do not charge workers when they take on workers compensation cases. “Attorneys are not allowed to accept payment from injured workers — the lawyers are only paid if workers comp cases result in an award,” said Matt Funk, a partner at Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP.

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