BY ADRIENNE MARKOWITZ AND EILEEN SENN
A clerical worker develops carpal tunnel syndrome; a custodian a back injury; a shop instructor lead poisoning; a science teacher chemical burns; a physical education teacher an antibiotic-resistant staph skin infection.
What should happen next with these work-related injuries and illnesses? Local associations should put into action Step 6 of the NJEA 10-step organizing approach for eff ective local association health and safety programs: “Assist sick and injured workers.”
Such assistance is important because school district administrators can and do refuse harmed workers medical treatment and financial compensation. This is true especially for occupational diseases, which are drastically under-recognized and under-reported. For example, according to the N.J. Department of Labor and Workforce Development, there were 8,900 work-related injuries reported by New Jersey’s public schools in 2013, but only 200 work-related illnesses that same year.
STRONG LAWS ENSURE TREATMENT AND COMPENSATION
Fortunately, there are strong laws in New Jersey to ensure compensation for school employees harmed on the job. In addition to the workers’ compensation law, school employees are covered by another statute that provides them with full salary from the day of the incident without the absences being charged to sick leave. Together, these two laws provide:
- Medical benefits for reasonable and necessary medical treatment and rehabilitation paid for through workers’ compensation, not the employee’s personal health insurance.
- Full wages and related emoluments if unable to work, not chargeable to sick leave, for up to one year from the date of the injury or date when the employee first became aware of an occupational disease or illness and its relation to the job. Generally workers’ compensation benefits are not taxable. However, the employee should seek qualified tax advice from an accountant or other tax professional as to the tax exempt status of any wage-loss benefits received.
- Partial wages beyond one year. For an accident or illness occurring in 2015, 70 percent of the employee’s gross salary up to a maximum of $855 a week in New Jersey.
- A permanency award based on total or partial disability and death benefits when applicable.
It should also be noted that under diff erent statutes, accidental or ordinary disability may also be available through the Division of Pensions where the injured employee can no longer work depending on the type of injury and/or years of service.
LOCAL ASSOCIATION ACTION PLAN
Locals can assist workers during the claims process in completing forms, meeting deadlines, and copying all paperwork. The claims process includes many important steps, to be completed by the injured worker, including:
- Report any work-related injury as soon as possible but not later than 90 days after an accident. The report can be verbal or in writing to a supervisor or school board office.
- Request immediate medical attention from a workers’ compensation provider-approved physician.
- Document the accident with a written description and photos, if possible.
- Report an occupational disease as soon as the worker becomes aware of the condition and that it is job-related. This should be done in writing with notes from a physician.
- Document the conditions that led to the occupational disease.
- Keep the school board office, supervisor and local association up to date on ongoing absences. Submit notes from the physician. Return to work when released by the physician.
- Take immediate action to preserve sick days should they be inappropriately assessed by contacting the local association and UniServ field representative. Strict timelines apply to preserving sick days.
- If the board charges absences to sick or vacation time, notify the local association and NJEA UniServ field representative for a referral to NJEA Legal Services.
Local association representatives should keep in touch with those who are harmed, especially if they are not back to work. These workers need to see that their union and co-workers are concerned about their treatment and recovery. Such solidarity often helps with recovery and demonstrates that no worker is expendable.
NJEA Legal Services handles problems such as restoration of sick days for work-related injuries and illnesses and other contractual issues related to such injuries and illnesses. These services are accessed through the UniServ field representative.
Workers’ compensation claims are not covered under the NJEA Legal Services plan. However, many of NJEA’s network attorneys handle such matters in their own private practice. A lawyer is not permitted to charge a fee in advance for handling these cases. Fees will be fixed by the judge only if a compensation award is made. Fees are capped at 20 percent of the award, usually payable 60 percent by the board and 40 percent by the worker.
In addition to the workers’ compensation law, school employees are covered by another statute that provides them with full salary from the day of the incident without the absences being charged to sick leave.
All necessary medical treatment and hospitalization services related to a work injury should be provided through the school district’s workers’ compensation insurance provider rather than though the employee’s regular health insurance. A refusal to provide necessary and appropriate treatment is actionable before the New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers’ Compensation and should be addressed by the employee though a workers’ compensation attorney.
There are physicians who specialize in the evaluation and treatment of individuals with an occupational disease. If an occupational disease claim is challenged, a specialized doctor can be helpful in establishing that the disease is indeed work-related. Treatment outside of the workers’ compensation system for a work injury cannot be charged to one’s health insurance and unless a judge decides otherwise, is likely to be deemed at the employee’s expense. As with all legal matters, the advice in this article is based on laws in existence at the time of the article is written.
CAN MY WORK-RELATED INJURY OR ILLNESS BE COMPENSATED?
Any injury or illness that can be shown to be caused or made worse by a worker’s job is compensable in New Jersey. The injury or exposure must take place at the workplace during the workday or while engaged in an activity incidental to those duties, such as traveling from one worksite to another, walking through the school-owned parking lot, or where required to participate in certain union related functions that also benefi t the employer, such as collective bargaining.
Injuries may include sprains, strains, fractures, cuts, lacerations, punctures, bruises, contusions, heat burns, welding fl ash, chemical burns, amputations, repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and soreness or pain, including back pain. Hearing loss or ringing in the ears is covered in some circumstances.
There is no list of covered illnesses. All work-related illnesses are potentially covered. Illnesses, which, depending on the facts, may be work-related include asbestosis, silicosis or other lung diseases, hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis, Lyme disease or other infectious diseases, skin diseases, malignant or benign tumors, reproductive disorders, heat stroke and heat exhaustion, frostbite, and poisonings. Conditions such as asthma, health eff ects from mold, diabetes, and heart disease may also be deemed work related, depending upon whether the facts support the individual cases.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
- A Worker’s Guide to Workers’ Compensation in New Jersey http://bit.ly/workerscompguide
- Physicians in New Jersey Specializing in Occupational & Environmental Illness www.state.nj.us/health/ohs/oemdlist.shtml
- NJEA’s 10 Steps to School Health and Safety