As recently as 2016, over 7.5 million Americans held multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. An on-the-job injury can cause a huge disruption to a person’s life, but an on-the-job injury for a person working for multiple employers can be particularly devastating.
When you are injured on the job, there are certain benefits that your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance company must provide to you under the laws of either Maryland, the District of Columbia or Virginia. Despite the fact that each jurisdiction has its own wrinkles through the laws, these benefits are largely the same. As a brief aside, I hesitate to use the word “benefits,” because that makes it sound like you are gaining something by getting money from the insurance company when you are injured. In fact, what these payments ensure is that you are not losing your livelihood, your ability to put food on your table or your ability to keep a roof over your head. Because the laws of each jurisdiction refer to this money as “benefits,” however, I will use it here.
What are wage replacement benefits?
In my years of handling workers’ compensation cases, I can tell you that one of the most important types of benefits, aside from medical care and treatment designed to get you better and back to work, are the wage replacement benefits you are entitled to receive while you recover from your injuries and are unable to work. These are known as temporary total disability benefits.
When an injury at work causes you to not be able to work and you lose your regular stream of income, it can have a devastating effect on both your life as well as the lives of your family members for whom you must also provide. Because of this, making sure that my clients are receiving their full temporary total disability benefits in a timely fashion is always my number one priority when I am first hired by a new client. I have had the great fortune to develop some tools for making sure that this happens sooner rather than later so that my clients’ lives are disrupted as little as possible by their work injuries. Insurance companies, however, are not always willing to pay these benefits in full or on time, which means that we sometimes must go to court to fight for our clients’ rights to their benefits.
But what if I’m working 2 jobs? A fight over temporary total disability benefits for one of my clients recently gave me the opportunity to change the law for the better not just for that particular client, but also for all injured workers in the District of Columbia.
For a little more background, in the District of Columbia, injured workers are entitled to “stack” their wages for purposes of the calculation of workers’ compensation benefits. This means that injured workers who are working at two or more jobs at the time of their injuries are entitled to be paid based upon lost wages from both jobs. Unfortunately, this is a key area of the law where Maryland and Virginia are lacking. In Maryland, injured workers cannot stack their wages at all. So, if you are injured while working at your part-time job and miss time from a much more lucrative full-time job, the state of Maryland has determined that you are out of luck and just have to deal with the very limited income replacement benefits. See why I hate to use the word “benefits”? In Virginia, injured workers can only stack their wages if their second job is similar to the job at which they are injured, but not otherwise. Again, this is hardly a “benefit” to someone who works two different types of jobs to provide for themselves or their family.
How We Changed the Law in D.C. to Help Injured Workers
Back to our story. My client in this particular case was working two jobs at the time she was injured. She was working in the District of Columbia for the employer where she injured her shoulder, and she also had a part-time job working for a different employer. When she was originally injured, her employer was still able to provide her with modified work so that she could continue earning an income. Her part-time employer, however, could not provide work within the physical restrictions that her doctor imposed on her. Actually, her doctor restricted her from working at her part-time job because he was concerned that she would overexert her injured shoulder. As such, her employer correctly began to pay her wage loss benefits based upon the partial loss in her total stacked wages that she sustained.
However, at a certain point in time, my client then injured her other shoulder and the originally injured shoulder got worse while she was in physical therapy. At that point in time, her employer was no longer able to provide modified work for her. When that happened, her employer should have begun paying her full temporary total disability benefits based upon the wages she was now losing from both of her jobs. The insurance company disagreed, and we had to go to a hearing. We won that hearing and the employer was ordered to pay my client based upon her lost wages from both jobs.
The employer was not satisfied and appealed to the Compensation Review Board (the highest level of appellate review within the D.C. Department of Employment Services). The Compensation Review Board agreed with the administrative law judge and we won again. The employer was still not satisfied and appealed one last time to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is the highest court in the District of Columbia and therefore, what the Court says is final. In July of this year, the Court of Appeals issued a decision that would affect all injured workers in the District of Columbia for the better.
First of all, we won, which was awesome for my client (and, of course, was the right decision in my opinion). The Court noted that the issue in our case was one of first impression; somehow the Court had never had the opportunity to rule on this issue. That, in and of itself, is pretty exciting to me because it’s an opportunity for me to affect a great change in the law to the benefit of many people, both now and in the future.
- If an injured worker works more than 1 job and can’t work at their second job because of a work injury from their first job, they are entitled to compensation for those lost wages from the second job, too.
In response to the employer’s argument that the Court would somehow create confusion and a conflict of legal principles if we prevailed, the Court of Appeals stated, “A legal paradox is not created by this decision. It is permissible to have two separate awards attributable to one injury because there are two separate jobs—and earnings—being affected by one injury. One injury can impact a person’s concurrent earnings differently because of differing job responsibilities—the examples are infinite.” Basically, the Court implicitly recognized that people do work different jobs that can both be impacted by a work injury, but also that people who are working two different jobs may have vastly differing job responsibilities at each job. As noted above, I think this is the most logical approach of the three local jurisdictions. Virginia and Maryland simply are not grounded in the realities of modern employment and are doing their citizens who sustain work injuries a massive disservice by failing to require that they be compensated for lost wages at both jobs.
- Employers have to show that alternate jobs don’t just actually exist, but that the injured worker could actually likely get that job.
The Court also delved a bit more into the evidentiary burdens of both injured workers and their employers at hearings. The Court reviewed more well-settled case laws that allowed an employer to escape liability for payment of temporary total disability benefits if a job might be available within an injured worker’s physical restrictions from his or her doctor. The Court, however, went one step further in this case and stated that an employer “must establish job availability in fact,” meaning that the employer “must prove that there are jobs reasonably available in the community for which the intervenor is able to compete and which she could realistically and likely secure.” Essentially, the Court prohibited what used to be the normal practice of employers/insurers and their defense attorneys coming into court and stating that a job would be available without providing any more evidence than that mere statement.
- Defense doctors who work for insurance companies can’t be the only evidence used to show that an injured worker could work.
Similarly, the Court prohibited employers from relying solely upon an opinion from a doctor selected and paid by the employer and insurance company to render an opinion about an injured worker’s ability to work. The Court noted that, logically, all a doctor’s opinion may (or may not) do is establish that an injured worker could work in some way, but it does not establish that a job is actually available. That makes sense to me because, unless the injured worker worked in that doctor’s office (and we would then be discussing conflicts of interest), how could the doctor ever know the business dealings and job availabilities at the employer’s place of business? Inexplicably, judges had previously allowed the defense attorneys to get away with this. Fortunately, the Court of Appeals saw through that charade in this case and clarified the law, making life much better for injured workers. My colleagues and I have already been able to apply this new requirement to the benefit of our clients in hearings.
- Just because an injured worker suffers a second new injury doesn’t mean the employer is off the hook for paying wage replacement benefits.
Finally, the Court found that my client’s subsequent injury to her other shoulder did not affect her rights to ongoing temporary total disability benefits. The Court focused on the definition of “disability,” which means an injury that causes a loss of wages. Although she had a new injury, her disability (i.e. her inability to work in a full-duty capacity) was unaffected by the second injury. This was specifically stated by her doctor, who indicated that her physical restrictions were still in place and unchanged by the new injury to the other shoulder. This was an important new development in the law because previously employers and insurers would rely upon the mere happening of a new injury to terminate any and all present and future benefits for our injured clients, again putting them into a predicament.
A ChasenBoscolo Victory for Injured Workers in the Maryland Court of Appeals
Even more astounding, in the same week that the D.C. Court of Appeals decided in this case that a subsequent injury did not necessarily impact an injured worker’s rights to ongoing wage loss benefits, the Court of Appeals of Maryland (which is the highest court in the state, just like the D.C. Court of Appeals) issued an opinion in another case of ours dealing with a similar issue. In that case, my colleague’s client had sustained a very serious injury to his back that caused him to have a permanent disability. Years later, he was involved in a minor altercation that, for a brief period of time, made his back hurt more. The employer and insurance company jumped all over that new incident to deny our client’s benefits. After a long and drawn out fight at the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, and ultimately the Court of Appeals of Maryland, found that our client’s subsequent minor injury had no impact on his disability as a result of his work-related injury.
All of the points of law held or clarified by the D.C. Court of Appeals and Court of Appeals of Maryland in these two cases represent important victories for the rights of injured workers. As a lawyer, I am incredibly proud of the work we do here at ChasenBoscolo to protect not just our clients, but also all injured workers, whether it be through litigating their cases in front of commissioners, administrative law judges or juries, or through our appellate advocacy to change the law for the better.