In the film Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia famously says “I have a bad feeling about this” as the Millennium Falcon seeks refuge from the Empire, unknowingly flying into even greater danger. While there are variations of this line throughout the Star Wars films, the same phrase could be applied to the dramatic changes being witnessed in workers compensation—and workers and those who fight for justice certainly have a bad feeling about what lies ahead. Even with today’s innovative training and safety mechanisms in place, injuries and fatalities occur at work—in 2017 there were more than 14 deaths every day on the job in the U.S. From every day mishaps around the office to serious incidents at manufacturing and construction sites, the moment there is an incident on the job, an often complex and costly process starts to get workers on the path to better health. This starts with initially seeking treatment, typically followed by therapy and follow-up visits, then a lengthy process to recover wages and adapt to physical restrictions. Employees must navigate an increasingly unfriendly environment in the Empire State. What has happened to change New York State’s response to injured workers?
Governor Cuomo has turned back the clock on our state’s proud history, negating worker rights and imposing his agenda on New York State. Up until recently, New York State’s history of advocating for worker rights was unparalleled, with the state introducing pioneering approaches to worker safety following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, the worst workplace disaster in New York City history until 9/11. Out of this tragedy, when 146 workers—most of them teenage immigrant women trapped on the top three floors of a 10-story “fireproof” building—emerged a new approach to worker safety. Frances Perkins was named the New York State Commissioner of Labor in 1929 and later became the first woman federal cabinet official as the United States Secretary of Labor in 1933. Unfortunately, this proud history is at risk, as today New Yorkers are witnessing an unprecedented power grab as the Governor and his administration demonstrate a total disregard for the physical, psychological, and financial challenges of injured workers, limiting their access to justice. Examples include:
- Last-minute changes to regulations—unannounced and introduced outside of the legislative process. Impossible to predict, these have altered the legal landscape. Connors & Ferris has clients impacted by these changes, greatly limiting a fair outcome. By circumventing the legislative process, injured workers and their legal representation are blindsided by changes.
- No response to requests for hearings, or delays stretching months and even years once they are granted. With little recourse outside of the hearing process, cases are in limbo, impacting every facet of the injured workers life. Injuries require immediate attention and ongoing medical care, and even a slight delay can alter recovery. The denial and delays of medical treatment because a fax number was wrong even though the insurance carrier received the request from the doctor is totally ridiculous and completely unacceptable.
- Introduction of a litany of significant and sudden new “standards” in workers comp, particularly impacting cases that might have multiple outcomes. Even the legal community protecting the injured workers are affected as exemplified by the undocumented requirement by the state for submitting attorney fees in advance—which is nearly impossible in injuries with multiple injuries and potential outcomes—and permanent versus non-permanent injuries requiring decisions to progress.
While on the surface Governor Cuomo expresses concern for workers—publicly supporting unions and labor, reaching out to everyday New Yorkers for photo ops—the reality of his actions reveals another side of his agenda. This inconsistency is harmful to workers not only in New York State, but also the entire nation as New York and California are often viewed as leading the way on worker rights and justice. Indeed, the world is watching as the Governor parades across the country while he tests the waters for a presidential run as his administration is dismantling the state’s rich history of advocacy. There were approximately 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers in 2017 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While this continues an overall pattern of decline occurring annually since 2004, nearly one-third of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses resulted in days away from work. Workers’ compensation helps to cover medical costs, lost income or earnings capacity, and rehabilitation expenses for injured workers. It also provides survivor benefits for fatalities. What is to become of the workers and their families, with no access to justice? Making up rules as they go along, far removed from the legislative process is fast becoming the norm for Governor Cuomo. While the travails of everyday New Yorkers won’t always make the headlines, we cannot forget those who suffer among us. Connors & Ferris will always give a voice to the voiceless and fight for what is right and just. We cannot do it alone—we need your help! What can you do to help protect injured workers and their access to justice? Here are three things that can be done today:
- Take action to keep everyone safe at work. You probably know someone who has been injured on the job. Workplace accidents impact every industry and demographic. While we cannot predict when a workplace injury will occur, we can collectively make a difference in ensuring worker safety and accountability. There are not enough resources to “police” workplace safety. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers. When there is an injury in the workplace, immediate action is needed to ensure a fair and just response.
- Develop an advocacy mindset to promote transparency. We must unite and demand that our Governor and his administration follow the legislative process when making decisions impacting workers—so when workers are hurt, they know what to anticipate with a fair process and predictable outcomes. Contact your local officials and ask them what they are doing to protect workers. At Connors & Ferris, we support proactive solutions and full transparency. Harness the power of social media to hold officials and employers accountable. Just as we promote “see something say something” for public safety, the same can be applied to worker safety. Unsafe conditions affect everyone.
- Help all generations in the workforce understand the history behind workplace safety and worker protections. While many have never heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, it is important to revisit the history of labor reform. Great tragedies led to reform—we don’t want to take a step back and forget the pain and sacrifice endured on the journey to safer workplaces.
Gregory Connors is a founding partner of Connors & Ferris.