Business owners and personal injury lawyers clash over proposed justice for injured workers bill, which would increase workers’ compensation for minor injuries and make it easier for injured workers to seek compensation additional benefits during their recovery.
The bill, which passed the Senate and Assembly in the final hours of the legislative session, is heading to Governor Kathy Hochul’s office. If the law is enacted, a worker partially disabled due to an accident at work will receive the full benefits granted to fully disabled employees throughout their recovery, unless the employer can provide suitable light work.
“This bill will make it easier for workers to get the benefits they deserve when they are injured on the job,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senator Andrew Gounardes. “This will clarify the definition of temporary total disability under New York State law as the injured employee’s inability to perform their job duties prior to the injury, and it will encourage employers to providing injured employees with light work where possible, rather than simply dismissing them when they are unable to fully perform their job duties.”
The bill provides a legal definition of temporary total disability in state law that did not previously exist.
Workers who are totally disabled traditionally receive two-thirds of their average weekly wage for a fixed period. The benefit is often reduced before an employee is allowed to return to work at a percentage of the original benefit depending on the severity of the injury. The proposed legislation would also prohibit a court from using the Wage Compensation Board’s earlier decision on an injured worker’s case to deny him a further trial on his claim.
Business leaders say changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system would devastate small businesses already struggling to stay afloat amid pandemic and inflation-related challenges.
“I truly believe the bill really helps workers’ compensation claimants’ attorneys more than it helps anyone else while increasing costs for businesses at a time when businesses are facing to absolute record increases in unemployment insurance, labor costs and everything else in the supply chain and the cost of doing business,” said Lev Ginsburg, counsel for the Business Council of New York State.
The companies argue that workers who have already settled their cases should not be allowed to go back to court for extra money and prevent a return to work. If the bill is enacted, injured workers on partial disability would not be required to seek other employment to receive the benefit.
Workers’ compensation attorney William Crossett IV, a partner at MVC law and co-chair of the New York Compensation Alliance, says worry is a myth and the majority of injured workers want to make ends meet and feed their families during their recovery.
“I think the idea that we need to cut benefits for injured workers to encourage them to get back into the workforce is out of place in today’s world,” said Crossett, former president of the Bar Association of injured state workers. “I don’t think that’s the problem.”
Ginsburg and other business leaders say the bill will benefit lawyers who represent injured workers while stifling small businesses and municipalities.
About 76% of New York employers pay less than $5,000 a year in workers’ compensation insurance premiums — an amount small businesses can’t afford with a 20% hike, added Ginsburg.
“What this really represents is the second bite of the apple of workers’ compensation cases that have been settled for a long time,” he said.
But Crossett says the law will help small businesses play a role in the case of an injured employee and help them retain strong workers.
“This legislation brings the employer back into the loop,” Crossett said Tuesday. “The employer must participate with the insurance company and with the injured workers in an effort to try to get them back to work, and in the meantime, ensure that they have the funds available to maintain what they are doing, maintain their livelihood, feed their families and be able to return to work.”
A spokesperson for Hochul would not answer questions about the governor’s support for the legislation or his intention to sign it.
“Governor Hochul is reviewing the legislation,” said the governor’s spokesman, Avi Small.
The Workers Compensation Alliance is made up of 300 law firms and attorneys across New York that represent injured workers.
Crossett argued that lawyers might not push ahead with profit criticism if the bill becomes law because workers would get higher benefits to begin with. Many injured workers do not seek counsel until their benefits are reduced, he added.
New York ranks 29th in the United States for the maximum level of benefits for injured workers, despite having one of the highest living costs in the country.