WILG president talks workplace injuries

J.R. BoydWelcome to the first installment in the Safety Services Company Interview Series. This month we talk with J.R. Boyd, president of the Workers Injury Law and Advocacy Group.

What is the Workers Injury Law and Advocacy Group?

The Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group is the national non-profit membership organization dedicated to representing the interests of millions of workers and their families who, each year, suffer the consequences of workplace injuries and illnesses.  The group acts principally to assist attorneys and non-profit groups in advocating the rights of injured workers through education, communication, research, and information gathering.   WILG is a network of like-minded advocates for workers’ rights, sharing information and knowledge, a sense of commitment and kinship, and networking to help each other and our clients.

WILG was founded in 1995 by a small group of  claimants’ attorneys and has grown into an organization of over 920 members representing every state in the nation.  Our members include sole practitioners, attorneys from multi-lawyer firms and paralegals.  WILG works everyday to make sure that as the challenges that face injured workers change, we evolve to meet those new challenges.  The Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (www.wilg.org) has grown into an important, national voice for workers.  WILG’s members are committed to improving the quality of legal representation to those injured on the job or victims of occupational illness by superior legal education and by keeping informed of legislative and judicial proceedings.

How long have you been with the group?

I have been a sustaining member since1995, shortly after graduating from law school. My father, along with a group of other national claimant’s lawyers, helped to form the organization.

Why did you get involved in helping injured workers?

I had a very strong background and desire to help workers. From my years as a teenager I have seen firsthand how workers benefited from solid legal representation. It is personally rewarding to help a person receive a fair settlement for them and their family. In this line of work, you are helping a person and his/her family, not faceless corporations.

When should an employee report a workplace injury to their employer?

Missouri law requires that an injured worker provide a written report of a workplace injury within 30 days of the date of the accident.  Certain exceptions exist, depending upon the circumstances

As a general rule anytime you suffer an injury you should report it as soon as it happens. Occupational illnesses and diseases differ, in that the law has been interpreted by the courts to require that the injured worker file written notice of an injury once he/she is notified by a physician that they may be suffering from an occupational illness. Occupational illnesses and diseases sometimes do not manifest until years after exposure, as people may ignore the symptoms, and are unaware that they have sustained an illness . Whenever symptoms manifest an injured worker needs to see a doctor and file an injury report if the doctor believes the illness is work-related.

Why are people reluctant to report workplace injuries?

I would say the vast majority of my clients are very fearful of losing their jobs, even with a collective bargaining agreement in place.  Employers often view injured employees as damaged goods and feel that there is a pool of younger, hungrier people from which they can find a replacement for the injured workers’ job. However, people need to realize that having their health is much more important than having a job. You can always find another job. No employee should have to suffer in silence, for fear of losing their employment.

What are the major challenges facing injured workers?

One of the biggest hurdles facing injured workers are politicians and state legislatures that are constantly  tinkering with the workers’ compensation system, in a misguided attempt to make their respective state more “business friendly.” By both lowering and restricting benefits and excluding workers from the coverage provided by workers’ compensation laws, politicians have triggered the law of unintended consequences For example, in 2005, the Missouri Legislature enacted substantial changes and reforms to the workers’ compensation Act. The laws gutted many protections afforded by the existing system and excluded many workers and their injuries  from coverage. The unintended result was that injuries which were no longer covered by workers’ compensation, could now be adjudicated in a civil lawsuit.  These changes caused employers and their insurers (both liability and property/casualty) to start fighting with one another, because the employer was now exposed to even greater liability within the civil setting.    By trying to make the state more business friendly, the Legislature created even more uncertainty.

How is WILG addressing these challenges?

WILG has helped approximately 30 different states over the last 2 years with various battles. We provide up to date information on how worker’s compensation programs operate in other states. One of the common arguments you will hear politicians making, is that a neighboring state has a more “business friendly” environment than their own, because the neighboring state has a more restrictive workers’ compensation system, and therefore, has an advantage over the other.  This non-stop comparison has fueled the race to the bottom of the economic barrel with injured workers and their families wrongfully bearing that burden WILG is able to provide accurate and factually based information to state legislatures because we have studied these trends on a national level since 1995. WILG is able to identify these trends before local leaders have an idea what is getting ready to happen. In the early 1990’s WILG saw Oregon implement dramatic legislative changes that drove most claimant’s practitioners out of business. Texas also underwent dramatic changes in the 1990’s with the goal to restrict benefits to injured workers and to make it so difficult to obtain relief, that claimant’s lawyers could no longer afford to help the workers. Texas’ system is so restrictive, there are hardly any claimant’s workers’ compensation practitioners in the state, and as a result, the inured workers suffer.

What is a common fallacy about workplace injuries?

From my perspective, some of the most common fallacies are that an employee hurts themself for economic gain and that workers are committing fraud. I can tell you from personal experience that none of my clients ever wanted to be injured or be drawn into the workers’ compensation system. They are losing their livelihood because of injuries that are typically not through any fault of their own.  Personally, I would love it if I went out of business because there were no workplace injuries, but the reality is that injured workers need skilled legal help and will always have employers and insurers lined up and ready to deny their claim for any multitude of specious reasons. That is where WILG helps our nation’s workers.

We have several members who have committed themselves over the last few years to work on a fraud task force, so as to help dispel the common myths surrounding these  two fallacies. The result of this research was a white paper which demonstrated the overwhelming majority of fraud was committed by employers and their insurance companies. The most common type of fraud employers commit is the misclassification of their employees as independent contractors Employers engage in this deceptive practice in order to avoid withholding the typical taxes that are associated with a full-time employee.  This includes Social Security, FICA, state, county, and other municipal taxes.  By avoiding the payment of these monies to governmental entities through misclassification, states are losing tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars per year in revenue collections.  In fact, this issue was serious enough to force Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina to establish a “Task Force on Employee Misclassification”

That there are some injured workers who commit workers’ compensation fraud, is indeed accurate.  However, the data gathered by WILG and through help with various states around the country, has helped demonstrate that it is the employers and their insurers who are committing the most fraud within the workers’ compensation system.

What type of impact do injuries have upon employers?

Although I have no specific data available, I suspect that there are two primary impacts: (1) the loss of man hours and (2) the increased cost of insurance premiums. If a company’s workers sustain no  injuries during a typical year, their insurance rates are likely much lower than a similar company which has had its workers sustain 100 injuries. Also as you have more injuries to workers, the productivity levels decline and quotas are not met because you have a smaller workforce trying to achieve the same level of output.

What amount of injuries are preventable?

There is likely no way to measure this in any accurate manner.  However, one example of where an injury could have been prevented, involved injury to a client of mine while working at a local plant.  While helping train a newer worker on a press machine, a client had two fingers sheared off, because the trainee made the mistake of activating the machine while my client’s hand was in the machine.  OSHA investigated the incident and ruled that it could have been prevented.

What does someone need to do when injured at work?

Ideally, the injured worker should immediately notify his/her employer that they have sustained an injury—the sooner the better.  In Missouri, the worker is required to give written notification within 30 days of having sustained the accident.  They should then contact an attorney who is proficient in workers’ compensation, because the insurer and employer have already started to marshal their resources, including their own attorneys, claims agents, investigators, case nurse managers, etc.  An injured worker who is not familiar with the law, should not try and walk the legal minefield without someone who is there to protect their interests.  That’s where WILG’s lawyers play a role.

When does a victim of a workplace injury need to call a lawyer?

Any injured worker should consult a lawyer as soon as they suffer an injury. I think people realize a minor cut isn’t necessarily going to require an attorney. More often than not though, traps are set by workers’ compensation insurers to catch the unwary employee, such as giving recorded statements to claims adjusters that can later be used against them during a trial. As an injury victim you should provide no information until you contact an attorney.

For injured workers you should generally rely upon the advice of an attorney who is going to represent your interests. Don’t be lulled into believing that the workers’ compensation system is going to protect you and your family or treat you in a fair manner.  Injured workers should not be ashamed to ask for help when the need arises. This is a life changing event. Play it safe and protect you and your family.

How does someone get help from WILG?

One of the things people can do is search for an attorney on the web site by searching in a particular state. We have other information also available online and our staff is on hand to provide as much non-legal advice as the law permits.

Tell me about the most memorable case?

One of the best examples was a case I litigated in the late 90’s. A nurse was denied medical care for cervical spine injury she suffered after tripping over a box at work. She injured both her cervical and lumbar spine. The orthopedic doctor performed a mutli-level lumbar fusion, but when it came time to treat the cervical injury, the claims adjuster disputed the board certified orthopedic surgeon’s findings, and said it would not be considered work-related, and denied further medical care.

To get my client the treatment needed, we sought a hardship hearing in court against the hospital and its workers’ compensation insurer. I first took the deposition of the claims adjuster and secured several damning admissions from her. She was a high school gradate only, and believed she was in a more educated position to tell an orthopedic surgeon that his opinions were inaccurate.

When we finally went to trial, I had the claims adjuster on the witness stand and caught her in a lie. She said the company never authorized payment for any treatment on the cervical injury, but we had a medical billing receipt showing otherwise. This caused the adjuster to turn red and flustered.  At that point the compensation company’s attorney wanted to take a break. However, the judge allowed me to continue my questioning. By the end of my examination the witness was to the point of tears. The judge ultimately ruled the company had to pay out for my clients hardship, surgery and lawyers’ fees

   

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