December 2009

The Debate over North Carolina Workers’ Compensation and Domestic Partner Benefits Gets Heavy and Heated in Mecklenburg County

December 31, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

On December 15, Mecklenburg County passed a measure conferring domestic partner benefits to same sex couples in the area. While the implications of this measure’s passage on North Carolina workers’ compensation issues will no doubt be indirect, this shift in the state’s political winds could portend future modifications to benefits packages and insurance coverage for workers.

According to a news report, the measure passed by a vote of 6-3. (The debate among the voting commissioners was overtly hostile. One commissioner insulted another’s deceased son, prompting a vicious off-microphone exchange.) Mecklenburg County is now the seventh county in the state to provide benefits to same sex couples who work for the government. Others include Greensborough, Durham, and Chapel Hill.

What are the policy implications of this benefits extension for North Carolina workers’ compensation law? At this point in time, it’s difficult to make any firm conclusions. Both the law and cultural mores regarding same-sex marriage in North Carolina are fast evolving.

Advocates of domestic partnership argue that family members of injured workers often get short shrift when it comes to collecting on injury policies. If, for instance, a same-sex couple has been together for 30 years and the bread-winner gets hurt at work and ultimately dies from his injury, why should his partner be denied compensation from his employer and/or the state government?

More Web Resources:

Mecklenburg County

City to consider domestic partner benefits

Will the Passage of a Federal Healthcare Bill Be a Boon or a Bust for North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Rights Advocates?

December 29, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

Advocates for North Carolina workers’ compensation benefits rights are closely watching the drama currently unfolding in the US Senate regarding the health care bill. Democrats and Republicans have split entirely along party lines in the Senate — 60-40. Democrats are poised to use their filibuster-proof margin to plow through a sweeping reform of our national healthcare system. Experts say this bill might have trillion dollar implications for our national economy — and billion dollar implications for North Carolina’s economy.

So how might this bill impact North Carolina workers’ compensation policy? Given that the bill is currently thousands of pages long and contains so many sweeping changes to the system, it’s difficult to identify the key implications. But speculation abounds. Consider:

1. Massive institutional changes will likely lead to confusion in the short term.
With new rules for insurance companies, employers, and healthcare bureaucrats likely to be put in place, we should expect a certain degree of chaos initially. After all, any time a sweeping piece of legislation gets passed, confusion reigns.

2. The broad political implications might trickle down to impact the debate over North Carolina workers’ compensation coverage.

The 2009 healthcare debate has widened the already gaping schism between the national Republican and Democratic parties. In North Carolina — a state that President Obama won in 2008 by a small margin — the political ramifications of the bill’s passage for both Dems and Republicans could be huge. If the two major parties find it more difficult to work congenially with one another following this bill’s passage, this could delay pending legislation regarding North Carolina workers’ compensation, for instance.

3. Many more questions have been raised than answered.
Will this new law ultimately lead to lower premiums and more affordable coverage for small businesses? Will North Carolina workers with preexisting conditions get better coverage and thus recover faster from injuries and illnesses? Will the tremendous cost of the national bill impact the state’s economy indirectly and thus indirectly compel business owners to cut budgets and drop employees to stay competitive? How will companies that provide North Carolina health and workers’ compensation insurance adapt to the changing national environment? Will these companies adhere to the law or find ways to skirt it? Will the new rules strangle them or make them more vigorous and accountable to the public?

With so many different questions up in the air, politicians and policy makers alike are holding their tongues to see what cascading effects this bill might have.

More Web Resources:

Health Care Bill 101

Democrat 60-40 Margin: What It Means

Snafu over Unemployment Benefit Claims Could Be a Huge Problem for Those on North Carolina Workers’ Compensation

December 23, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

According to a December 19 article in the Herald Sun, around 200,000 unemployed North Carolina workers could see their benefits ended unless the US Congress re-ups its Emergency Unemployment Compensation program (part of a nearly $800 billion package entitled the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act).

While jobless employees can still collect North Carolina workers’ compensation, this funding shortfall could further destabilize the state’s already stagnant economy. The Byzantine nature of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program does not seem to be helping matters, either. Consider:

The initial program was to be funded equally by the federal government and the state government. Now, due to technicalities regarding the EUC, it’s funded 100 percent by the federal government. A spokesperson for a consultancy based out of Chapel Hill noted that one of the biggest problems is the so-called trigger system. Filers are sorted into one of four tiers. Once you exhaust the weeks of benefits within your tier, you can apply to file under a different tier. All this bureaucracy appears to jam the system and make filing vastly more complicated.

Adding to the headache is North Carolina’s rate of unemployment, which tipped double digits in the fall and now stands at around 11 percent (although the Research Triangle has a slightly lower rate).

So what’s the bottom line in terms of North Carolina workers’ compensation policy? First of all, the impacts of the 2007-2008 Recession will surely reverberate into 2010 and beyond. Second, according to the North Carolina Employment Security Commission’s Deputy Chairman, if the US Congress fails to extend unemployment benefits, the ramifications for workers on unemployment and workers’ comp could be devastating. Third of all, the disappointing numbers might inspire more innovative policy approaches. Think tanks and policy groups are already coordinating about how to rejigger the system to keep unemployed, underemployed and disabled workers financially afloat as the state economy stabilizes.

If you’re worried about unemployment or workers’ comp benefits running out due to the vagaries of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, it may behoove you to connect ASAP with a qualified and experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney.

More Web Resources:

Added jobless benefits program set to expire

North Carolina record unemployment rate

Falls and Scaffolding Failures Create Many New North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Cases in 2009

December 21, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) found that scaffolding failures and the failure of fall protections rose this year by almost 30 percent over 2008 numbers — indicating a new source of danger for North Carolina workers.

The national numbers complied by OSHA do not necessarily correlate directly with North Carolina numbers, but they point to acute risks that NC workers face day-to-day and suggest how many 2010 North Carolina workers’ compensation cases might arise.

1. According to OSHA, nationally there were nearly 9,100 scaffolding violations due to poor signage, unmarked dangers from falling objects, and slip and fall hazards.

2. Fall protection failures numbered over 6,700. According to OSHA, anyone who works over four feet above ground must be protected from fall risks. Fall injuries can lead to contusions, lacerations, broken bones, spinal cord injuries, and even wrongful death.

3. OSHA handed out nearly 6,400 violations for “hazard communication.” These include failures to correctly fill out safety data sheets and failures to label hazardous chemicals and other materials.

4. OSHA handed out just over 3,800 violations for respiratory protection infractions. Workers in industries like mining, construction, and painting must protect their lungs from particulate matter and other pollutants — without respirators and other key equipment, these workers can fall ill on the job and also be at greater risk for chronic diseases, such as lung cancer and emphysema.

5. Other common violations related to: lock out/tag, electrical failures, ladder problems, powered industrial trucks, and failures to guard machines effectively.

If you or a loved one has been hurt at work due to improperly implemented safety procedures — even if you were partially at fault — you can stake a claim for North Carolina workers’ compensation. It may behoove you to discuss your matter with an attorney ASAP to protect your rights and collect your maximum allowable compensation amount.

More Web Resources:

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)

Biggest Dangers at Work

10 Challenges for the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation System In 2010 (Part 2)

December 16, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

As we discussed in our first post on this subject, the North Carolina workers’ compensation system has been strained by a staggering variety of factors. Here are five more key challenges that policymakers may want to address seriously.

6. Weather.

The issue of climate change is on everyone’s minds. Following the inconclusive resolution to the recent Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change and the revelations that researchers at East Anglia University cherry picked data and prevented skeptics from publishing in peer review journals, many North Carolinians have soured on the idea that global warming is manmade (and that we have the wherewithal to do anything about it, if it is). Regardless, uncertainties regarding the state’s climate indirectly impact business investment, which in turn might impact North Carolina workers’ compensation insurance rates and other policies. For instance, let’s say that a small business owner wants to commission a fleet of boats but worries about possible hurricane damage. Her uncertainty about the science of climate change could impact her business’s investment decision and thus indirectly impact the number of jobs in NC and the rates for insurance, and so forth.

7. General changes to insurance rates.

Wayne Goodwin, the North Carolina Insurance Commissioner, announced a few months ago that North Carolina workers’ compensation insurance rates would be decreased by 9.6 percent — netting employers throughout the state a savings of around $100 million. How might this rate cut impact the benefit system is anyone’s guess. Employers seem to appreciate getting a break during these difficult economic times. But just because small business owners in general like the proposal doesn’t mean that good things will not necessarily come out of it — and the uncertainty could even cause some problems.

8. Outsourcing.

Although North Carolina’s Research Triangle continues to produce income for the state at a prodigious rate, local economists remain concerned about how outsourcing of industry tasks might morph the state’s economy. With unemployment now in the double digits, more than a few North Carolinians are advocating for restrictions on certain kinds of outsourcing and for increasing taxes on those who do send work overseas or to other states.

9. Immigration.

Although the debate over immigration does not attract the kinds of headlines it did two or three years ago, North Carolina’s population nevertheless continues to evolve and transmogrify. With radical demographic shifts becoming normal for the state, it stands to reason that the flux will have profound ramifications for workers’ comp benefits policy.

10. Actions of other states and the federal government.

North Carolina is not an island unto itself. It is interdependent. The actions of the federal government and of neighboring states — particularly Virginia, South Carolina, and Maryland — can have huge impacts on the state economy. The actions of these states are largely outside of our control. And they add yet another layer of uncertainty to an already tumultuous mix.

If you or someone you know has been hurt at work or has fallen ill, connect today with a North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer to learn about your rights and potential benefits.

More Web Resources:

North Carolina’s Research Triangle

Wayne Goodwin, the North Carolina Insurance Commissioner

10 Challenges for the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation System in 2010 (Part 1)

December 13, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

The North Carolina workers’ compensation system faces daunting challenges in the upcoming decade. Here are some of the foremost problems that pose issues for workers, small business owners, insurance companies, and the state government alike in the year ahead.

1. Epidemic of texting-while-driving is causing many more accidents.

As North Carolina workers become more and more dependent on cellular devices to communicate with clients, friends, and family members, more and more people across the state are getting into injury accidents caused by or exacerbated by mobile device use. A recent study out of Virginia Tech (this summer) concluded that texting while driving increases the risk of getting into an accident by a whopping 21 times — that’s significantly more dangerous than driving DUI. Other studies at various independent institutions have confirmed this. Unless we somehow curtail this epidemic of texting while driving, more injury cases will swamp the system.

2. Other distractions at work, such as social networking websites, make employees less attentive to critical tasks.

An endless stream of media distractions competes for the attention of North Carolinians — not just in private and at home but also at work. Many independent studies show that workers who do not concentrate effectively on specific tasks perform these tasks more poorly and less ergonomically. Collectively, the distraction of our state workers is bound to lead to increases in on-the-job accidents — everything from ladder falls to machinery accidents to the ignoring of posted warning signs to devastating effect.

3. A failure to resuscitate the state’s economy could lead to desperate and unwise cost cutting measures.

Small business owners — and large companies alike (such as Wachovia and Bank of America) — have been tightening their belts to compensate for the downturn in the state and national economies. Some of this belt-tightening has yielded improvements in efficiency. And many economists argue that the current NC unemployment rate of around 11 percent is not as bad as the pessimists would have us fear. But the reality is that economic hard times can drive small business owners and workers alike to do dangerous things to keep financially afloat. An independent contractor, for instance, may forego hiring help and attempt to do more work himself. This can put him at risk for increased fatigue and thus increase his risk for getting hurt on the job. Similarly, business owners may be more likely to take risky and perhaps illegal steps to protect their budgets. For instance, a small business owner may forego taking out North Carolina workers’ compensation insurance to cut corners — thus leaving his employees unprotected and setting up serious legal problems down the line which could suck up valuable court time and drain the resources of all litigants.

4. As the stale economy lingers, more workers and employers will become depressed and irritable, which will collectively hurt productivity and set the stage for accidents and injuries.

When you’re depressed, inattentive, anxious, and constantly engaged with financial fears, you don’t work as well, and you don’t communicate with others as effectively. Factors such as worker fatigue, miscommunication, and inability to follow protocol all contribute to injury risk and risk for accidents. Unless our economy stabilizes quickly, we’re likely to see increases in all of these risk factors across industries, which will put hard to identify but nevertheless real and serious strains on the state’s infrastructure.

5. Climate of uncertainty leads to problematic behavior.

How might the massive new Democratic sponsored healthcare bill impact North Carolina workers’ compensation policies? Will the federally funded unemployment benefits run out in 2010? How will the North Carolina workers’ compensation insurance rate slash (due to go into effect in April 2010) impact everything? Will the state’s economy languish or lunge forward? All of these factors and dozens of others can create a climate of confusion and fear in the minds not only of policymakers but also in the minds of bosses and workers. When we collectively lose confidence in our ability to forecast the future of North Carolina workers’ compensation and unemployment policies, costs tend to skyrocket.

If you or a coworker or family member has been hurt on the job in North Carolina, you may benefit greatly from a free, confidential, and zero obligation consultation with a creditable and proven North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney.

More Web Resources:

Texting While Driving is Dangerous

Distractions at Work

10 Ways to Bring Down North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Costs In 2010 (Part 2)

December 9, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

As we’ve discussed in our previous blog posts on North Carolina workers’ compensation costs, our state is at a crossroads. 2010 could be the year in which we turn the economy around and help workers become healthier. Or it could be the year in which our problems get worse, and our employment and disability rates break the back of the state’s economy. Given what’s at stake, here are five more potential solutions to our skyrocketing compensation costs.

6. Adapt quickly to the realities of the new healthcare bill.

Assuming that President Obama’s healthcare bill passes through Congress, North Carolinians should expect significant and far reaching changes throughout the healthcare system and general economy. While it’s too early to say what kind of an effect this bill will ultimately have on the job force — and, indirectly, on North Carolina workers’ compensation benefits — it’s not too early to prepare. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle should come together to discuss state-specific problems and solutions resulting from this bill.

7. Workers need to get more fresh air.

Numerous independent studies show that indoor air pollution is a growing problem. In some buildings, indoor air pollution can be ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Toxic molds, particulate matter, dust, debris, and bacteria in ventilation systems can wear down the workforce. Even if an employee doesn’t get specifically sick or hurt from breathing in bad air, he or she can be slowed and prevented from working at optimal capacity. By instituting a program educating people about the benefits of breaks and fresh air, perhaps we can improve respiratory health.

8. More sleep for workers.

As any doctor will tell you, it’s important to get a good night’s rest. Unfortunately, with the state’s economy in shambles and unemployment rates climbing, more and more North Carolinians are sacrificing sleep to work more hours and longer shifts. While this might pay off in the short term, in the long run, it’s bound to have ill effects. Sleep is restorative. Without sleep, we become inattentive, irritable, less able to communicate with our peers and coworkers, and at greater risk for heart disease and obesity.

9. Technological innovations.

We do live in 2010 — and the technology sector is booming. Improved computer software, ergonomic furniture designs, and other engineering solutions to common workplace problems abound. By implementing these technologies broadly, we can likely cut down on injuries and thus indirectly improve the North Carolina workers’ compensation benefit system.

10. More humor at work.

Coworkers who laugh together and smile at one another not only enjoy their work more but also get into fewer accidents and take fewer sick days. And employers and employees who strive to make the workday more fun see significant benefits — not just in terms of quality of life but also in terms of bottom line budget numbers.

To discover effective and efficient help with your North Carolina workers’ compensation problems, connect today with an attorney to protect your rights and your benefits.

More Web Resources:

Dangers of Indoor Air Pollution

Importance of Sleep to Workers

10 ways to reduce North Carolina workers’ compensation costs in 2010 (Part 1)

December 8, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

Each year, millions of dollars are spent on North Carolina workers’ compensation benefits and other sundry costs. With the state struggling with epic unemployment and other economic problems, policymakers across the political spectrum are seeking solutions. So here are ten ideas to take some of the financial pressure off of the North Carolina workers’ compensation system.

1. Improve office workstations and ergonomic tools.

As we’ve discussed in other posts on this blog, musculoskeletal disorders impact a significant percentage of the North Carolina workforce. To protect that workforce, we need to employ more proactive healthcare. In particular, we need to improve ergonomics for office workers, educate people about the risks of repetitive stress injuries, and intervene earlier in the injury process to prevent disorders that can result from untreated RSI.

2. Help the state workforce become more fit.

Exercise techniques and classes can protect workers from getting injured in the first place. For example, a recent study on the Alexander Technique (AT) in the UK found that just over a dozen sessions of AT helped workers recover from repetitive stress injuries and avoid costly surgeries and medications. Yoga and Feldenkrais have also anecdotally delivered great results for workers in a variety of fields.

3. Stricter enforcement of anti cell-phone-while-driving laws.

The research about the dangers of driving while texting is unambiguous. Cell phones and driving do not mix. Even if you wear a hands-free earpiece while talking on the phone, you will still significantly increase your risk of getting into an injury crash. Unfortunately, many North Carolinians do not know enough about these dangers — for instance, many assume that talking hands-free is just fine. As a result, we are seeing more cell phone related injury crashes. If the state police can perform a better crackdown against drivers who violate anti cell phone laws; and if we can collectively educate our drivers about these dangers, perhaps we can see a reduction in injury crashes and thus relieve some pressure on the North Carolina workers’ compensation system.

4. Eliminate other distractions at work.

Today, it’s not unusual to find employees “multitasking” most hours of the day. Workers now spend a staggering amount of time staring at what the satirical newspaper The Onion has referred to as “glowing rectangles” — e.g. computer screens, mobile phone devices, television sets, billboards, etc. This constant distraction leads to inattention and increases risk of injury.

5. Consume less sugar.

Many independent studies have demonstrated that the overconsumption of sugar can cause inflammation, arthritis, fatigue, inattention, and a battery of other health problems. By collectively reducing the amount of refined sugars that we eat — particularly around holiday time — we might be able to stave off not just some on-the-job injuries but also serious health problems, such as obesity and diabetes.

More Web Resources:

Dangers of Sugar

Help for RSI

Could Simple Ergonomic Fixes Revolutionize North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Policy?

December 1, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

North Carolina workers’ compensation policy wonks generally spend the lion’s share of their time doing things like analyzing insurance tables, parsing changes to state regulations, and tracking growth trends in state-specific industries. However, abundant research suggests that policymakers might want to focus more attention on simple workstation ergonomics.

Consider that a British research company (The Work Foundation) recently found that 100 million Europeans endure serious musculoskeletal problems every year, and that these problems eat up around two percent of the entire EU GDP — a staggering $400 billion. There’s no reason to doubt that work-related musculoskeletal injuries enact a similarly devastating toll on workers here in the United States and in North Carolina.

To that end, it seems that fixing whatever is causing these musculoskeletal problems should be a top priority for our policymakers. The question is: how? One theory is that many — if not the majority — of North Carolina workers’ compensation cases stem from chronic damage caused by overuse of certain muscle groups and poor ergonomics. For instance, a stenographer who spends ten hours a day typing up court transcripts can seriously hurt himself if he doesn’t employ excellent technique, take frequent breaks, and use well-designed equipment.

Repetitive stress injuries and other chronic musculoskeletal problems can occur in practically any industry — they are not specific to traditional office work. A painter, for instance, can develop adhesions in her shoulder from doing repetitive brush stroking day in and day out. A truck driver can develop sciatica and lower back strains from sitting in a cab for eight to ten hours a day. Even professional athletes can get quite hurt from doing repetitive actions, even actions not normally associated with acute dangers. Indeed, any job that requires that you bend, lift, type, walk, stand, sit, or talk for extended periods without appropriate rest and ergonomic support can create the conditions for injury.

What’s baffling is that simple and cheap ergonomic solutions to many chronic overuse problems abound. The installation of more ergonomic workstations across North Carolina, for instance, might be very useful at cutting down the rate of typing injuries. The installation of lumbar supports in truck cabs should be useful at reducing sciatica and lower back pain and so forth.

To summarize, North Carolina workers’ compensation policymakers should analyze simple, cost effective, and easily instituted ergonomic fixes post haste. This should not only lead to happier and healthier workers but also to a reduced number of claims, and thus to many other indirect benefits to employers and to the state as a whole.

More Web Resources:

The Work Foundation