Backlog in courts delays and denies access to justice
The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, the federal benefits program protecting those who work in shipyards and on the water, has historically been friendlier to workers than state programs. But as Public Integrity reports in a continuation of its Breathless and Burdened series, a troublesome trend shows the number of Labor Department judges nationwide falling sharply while the number of filings continues to increase, creating devastating delays for injured and ill workers. who desperately need compensation. With wait times of several years to get a decision, workers with advanced illnesses are often forced to take settlements for a fraction of the benefits owed them.
Federal contracts go to some of country’s top health and safety violators
While the federal government may be trying to crack down on misclassification with a new bill, it continues to sign contracts with companies that are known to violate labor law and commit fraud. A new congressional report has found that an astounding 30% of the country’s top federal wage and safety law violators are current federal contractors. The federal government awarded over 80 billion dollars in contracts to employers with known violations in 2012 alone. Low-wage federal contract workers recently started a petition asking President Obama to ensure that federal contract workers are paid a livable wage and to ban employers who repeatedly violate health and safety laws from receiving federal contracts. On January 28, Obama announced that he would require employees of federal contractors to be paid $10.10 per hour. Though disabled workers were initially excluded from the higher wage, disability rights activists joined with labor and civil rights allies to win the same wage for disabled workers as everyone else.
Iowa affirms workers' compensation rights for immigrant workers
In late November, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that a Mexican immigrant working under an expired visa is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The decision emphasized that the federal immigration statute is meant to stop employers from hiring undocumented workers, not to take away labor protections after an employment contract is signed. Legal access to workers’ comp for immigrant workers is important not only for protecting the rights of an already vulnerable part of the workforce, but also for discouraging employers who hire undocumented workers from dodging safety rules. Despite the ruling, threats of retaliation and deportation remain powerful forces that keep many immigrant workers from filing for workers’ comp and reporting health and safety and wage and hour violations.
Attack on immigrant workers’ rights in Ohio
While Iowa joins the growing number of states whose courts have affirmed the right to workers’ compensation for immigrant workers, Republican senators in Ohio are pushing for legislation that would cut undocumented immigrant workers out of the workers’ comp system and strip them of all other employee rights. The bill allows injured immigrant workers to file a civil case against their employer only if they can prove the employer was at fault for the injury and knew that the employee was undocumented when they were hired. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) writes that the exceptionally high legal bar for these injured workers to recover any money for their injuries essentially gives employers immunity for health and safety violations and encourages companies to ignore safety regulations.
Oklahoma Supreme Court rules controversial workers’ compensation law constitutional
Oklahoma will move forward for now with enacting its recent workers’ compensation overhaul, which includes controversial measures that allow employers to opt out of workers’ comp plans. On December 16, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected a recent bipartisan challenge to the bill’s constitutionality, but the ruling was close and left room for future contentions. Three of the justices expressed explicit concern about the opt-out provision in the new law, pointing out that requirements for companies that opt out “do not provide adequate due process protections” for employees, violating injured workers’ right to a fair and participatory process.
Troubling trend for growing temp sector
According to a recent five-state ProPublica study analyzing millions of workers’ compensation claims, the risk of on-the-job injury is up to 72% higher for temp workers than for regular employees. With no financial obligation to pay for on-the-job injuries and little regulation or oversight, companies that hire temp workers are less careful about safety, regularly sending workers into dangerous situations with inadequate experience, equipment, or training. The quickly growing reliance on temp work puts workers at high risk of occupational injuries and toxic exposure, and is part of a larger trend toward precarious work. Since employers aren’t required to provide workers’ comp for temp employees, companies don’t have the same financial incentives to protect workers. Moreover, when claims are filed, temp agencies and companies often fight over who is responsible, creating delays that can have devastating effects on injured workers in need of emergency medical care.
Oregon hospital workers face high safety risks with little protection from OSHA
Recent studies have emphasized the health and safety risks to health care workers, showing that these workers are injured at rates similar to farmers and hunters. Yet in Oregon, a Lund Report review points to evidence that regulators are actually de-emphasizing attention to employee safety at the state’s hospitals. , most of which have not been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Division in years — and when inspectors find occupational hazards, Oregon’s OSHA office usually levies the lowest level of fines.
Nurses and other hospital workers are at high risk for serious injuries and illnesses, but receive little attention from health and safety inspectors.
Fatalities increase dramatically in oil and gas industry
A hiring spike in the oil and gas industry has brought jobs to many blue-collar workers, but at a terrible cost. The 23% increase in industry jobs from 2009 to 2012 was accompanied by an over-100% increase in worker fatalities, placing the fatality rate for oil and gas workers almost eight times higher than the overall national rate.Those who have worked in the field report a money-over-safety mentality that encourages workers to rush through tasks and sacrifices crucial job training. The result is a lack of safety that not only makes the industry one of the most dangerous for workers, but also creates a high risk of catastrophic environmental disasters that threaten entire communities.
West Virginia chemical spill endangers entire community, raises questions about chemical regulation
The chemical spill that left over 300,000 West Virginians without a clean water supply bears striking similarities to last April’s chemical explosion in West, Texas, highlighting the appalling ongoing deficiencies in state and national regulation.Both disasters stunned the nation as indications emerged that while ample warnings were present, no preventative action was taken. While regulators at the Chemical Safety Board made safety recommendations in 2009 to Kanawha Valley, West Virginia, where the spill occurred, there was no concerted effort to follow up and enforce better safety practices.
Chemical industry pushes bill that would curtail legal rights of toxic exposure victims
The industry-backed Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) threatens to leave many victims of toxic exposure without legal recourse to receive compensation for their injuries and illnesses. The bill would give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the final word in determining what chemical uses and levels are "safe", forcing courts to consider the EPA's safety determinations as final and preempting them from considering all other evidence that may prove otherwise.Tort law has traditionally seen safety regulations — notoriously slow and difficult to change with updated research — as a minimum requirement for companies. The CSIA would change this, creating a dangerous precedent that essentially exempts companies from accountability when dangerous chemical use leads to worker injuries and illnesses.
Proposed OSHA rule to strengthen reporting requirements for occupational injury and illness
OSHA has proposed a rule that aims to improve the woefully inadequate methods for reporting occupational injuries and illnesses. While new obligations to electronically submit injury and illness records to OSHA will hopefully help in tracking, prevention, and transparency, employer retaliation and threats of blackballing or deporting immigrant workers remain barriers to accurate reporting.
OSHA finds a way around outdated exposure limits
An OSHA case involving the chemical Styrene has found a way around the agency's deplorably outdated permissible exposure limits (PELs). The process to amend PELs remains notoriously slow, but OSHA has developed a resource charting independent organizations' updated exposure limits. OSHA has used these independent sources as evidence that the company Fiberdome, Inc. violated the general duty clause, which holds that a company must provide a work environment "free from recognized hazards ... likely to cause death or serious physical harm".OSHA Director David Michaels insists this isn’t indicative of a new strategy or trend, but coming on the tail of OSHA’s publication of annotated exposure limit tables and its statement that its own PELs are based on decades-old research and do not represent safe levels, the case demonstrates that given the anti-regulatory environment and powerful business lobbies, it is necessary to use other means to protect worker safety. Unfortunately, as Fiberdome's challenge to the citation evinces, relying on the general duty clause invites expensive and time consuming legal cases for an agency already stretched far too thin.
Public hearings approach for updated silica rule
An extended public comment period has just ended for OSHA's long-awaited silica rule, and the first public hearings are scheduled to begin on March 18 in Washington, D.C. The construction industry and right-wing economists have already lobbied strongly against the rule, basing their complaints on faulty assumptions and concerns over cost efficiency, with no consideration for the cost to human lives caused by continued use of silica at unsafe levels.
Mississippi workers’ compensation policies deny formerly incarcerated workers the right to work
Many workers’ compensation insurance policies in Mississippi bar employers from hiring formerly incarcerated workers, a direct denial of people’s right to work. The Associated Press reports that with the State considering a set of recommendations on Mississippi’s prison system released by a State task force in December, Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey is calling on fellow legislators to eliminate the hiring discrimination written into workers’ comp policies.
New Mexico farm workers win equal access to workers' compensation
The New Mexico Court of Appeals has upheld the 2011 decision that abolishes the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the state’s workers’ compensation program. Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, and the industry’s widespread use of immigrant labor means that farmworkers are already among the state’s most vulnerable workers.The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and Sin Fronteras Organizing Project have been at the forefront of the fight for New Mexico farmworkers’ right to workers’ comp, and are committed to monitoring the State Workers’ Compensation Agency to ensure that they begin robust enforcement of the law for agricultural workers. Watch a video about the effects that discriminatory workers’ comp laws have had on farmworkers in the state.
A mixed bag for New York rescue workers
First responders at Ground Zero operate heavy machinery to move rubble and facilitate the search for remains.
On December 16, Governor Cuomo announced that World Trade Center (WTC) workers — paid or volunteer — who performed rescue, recovery or clean-up on and after 9/11 have new protections for workers’ comp ensation benefits.The deadline for filing claims has been extended to September 11, 2014, and late claims, including those that were barred in the past because they were not filed on time, will be considered. Five health conditions including diseases that develop in the future will now qualify rescue and clean-up workers for compensation. Former NYCOSH Executive Director Joel Shufro points to the law’s importance for workers who contracted occupational illnesses with long latency periods, for whom symptoms may not have arisen until the filing period was over. Other rescue workers in the state weren’t so lucky: Cuomo vetoed two bills that would have added protections for first responders, including A.400, a provision that would have increased access to medical coverage for volunteer rescue workers.
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