Workers’ compensation provides a critical pillar of financial support for injured workers. Before Vermont adopted this system, injured workers had to sue their employer for workplace accidents, and the common law often shielded employers from liability. With the rise of workers compensation, employers purchase an insurance policy and workers submit a claim for no-fault benefits. The system has worked out reasonably well for everyone.
As seasonedVermont workers’ compensation lawyers, we stay on top of changes in the current laws. Recently, Vermont has revised some aspects of its workers’ compensation system. The good news is workers will still qualify for benefits after a work-related accident. The changes are minor, but they could impact your case, depending on the facts. In this article, we take a closer look at some of the most significant changes that went into effect this summer.
Helping Firefighters Prove Cancer is Work-Related
Workers’ compensation only kicks in if a worker suffers an injury on the job. If your injury occurred away from work, you aren’t covered. Proving this link is easy when someone falls off a ladder and breaks their arm. It’s more difficult when someone suffers an occupational illness, like cancer. But Vermont law provides that it is presumed that a firefighter’s cancer is the result of workplace exposure. The presumption can be overcome by evidence showing the cancer stemmed from a non-work exposure or from other non-work factors.
The prior law only covered certain types of cancers, but that has been changed to include breast cancer, lung cancer, cancer to the reproductive system, and thyroid cancer.
The law was also changed to clarify that the presumption applies if the firefighter has had all recommended cancer screening evaluations while serving as a firefighter.
As a result of these changes more firefighters will have a workers compensation claim.
Changing the Calculation of Temporary Partial Disability Benefits
Workers who are only partially disabled can continue to work, although they might only work part-time, or do a job which pays less. Consequently, they may receive partial disability benefits to replace some of their lost income.
Previously, there was only one way of calculating the Temporary Partial Disability benefit. That calculation looked at the difference between the workers’ average weekly wage (AWW) and the amount they earned each week while disabled. The worker then received roughly two-thirds of the difference. So if Kim used to make $600 before her accident and only makes $450 on light duty after, then she could receive 2/3 of the $150 she lost, or roughly $100. For low wage workers, this calculation often meant they would receive more money if they were not working.
Now there is a second, alternative calculation method. As explained by theDepartment of Labor, the new calculation is complex and requires finding the “compensation rate.” Benefits are calculated by subtracting the amount the claimant makes while disabled from the compensation rate. The method that results in the larger amount is the one that shall be used.
The change has increased the amount of benefits for many workers receiving temporary partial disability benefits. Vermont legislators expressed a hope that the new calculation will create an incentive for more people to go into the workforce. In other words, instead of seeking temporary total disability benefits, they will accept partial disability and start working.
Increasing Dependent Benefits
The weekly benefit for dependent children under 21 will jump from $10 to $20 a week. Even better, this dependent benefit will also apply to temporary partial disability benefits, in addition to temporary total disability benefits.
However, the expansion to temporary partial disability benefits will only apply if the injury occurs on July 1, 2023 or later.
As with the change in how temporary disability benefits are calculated, this expansion also increases the attractiveness of working part-time. You will not lose out on the benefits to dependent children.
Limiting Allowable Work Search Requirements
If a claimant has been released to work with or without restrictions but cannot return to the same employer, the insurance company may require the claimant to look for work in order to continue to receive weekly benefits. The state has passed new guidance for insurance carriers regarding work search requirements.
Under the new rule, insurers cannot require that claimants perform more than 3 work searches in a week. Further, the insurance carrier cannot require work search when a claimant has been either referred for or scheduled to receive surgery, or if they are already working in another job.
This change is an important limitation on carriers, some of whom were aggressive at requiring unrealistic work searches.
Our View of the Recent Changes
Collectively, these legal changes benefit injured workers. Firefighters will have an easier time getting benefits after a cancer diagnosis, and those who are already working can receive a larger partial disability benefit. Furthermore, workers released back to work do not have to move heaven and earth to find a new job but can instead engage in realistic job searches.
Of course, one motivation for some of the changes is to get people off total temporary disability benefits and into the workplace. This reflects an ongoing hostility on the part of many insurers to the idea that some workplace injuries are so serious that claimants cannot work at all. Some claimants need to navigate a gauntlet just to get the benefits they deserve—and that won’t change.
Injured workers will still face pressure to return to work and will continue to see valid claims denied. Other workers will need to go to independent medical exams because an insurer suspects the worker is exaggerating an injury. We wish employers and the insurance industry were less cynical in their view that workers are trying to cheat the system. Still, we welcome the increase in benefits many of our clients will receive.
Was Your Claim Denied? We Can Help
Our Vermont workers’ compensation lawyers cut our teeth helping those injured in workplace accidents, as well as those suffering from occupational illnesses. If you need help with a workers’ comp claim, we are the law firm to call. Larson & Gallivan Law has helped all sorts of workers—seasonal, part-time, and regular full-time workers. Give us a call, 802-327-8458 to discuss your workplace accident in a confidential setting. Remember, your employer cannot retaliate against you for seeking workers’ compensation benefits.