by Bernard D. Nomberg, Partner, The Nomberg Law Firm
It is normal to expect you should be adequately compensated after being injured on the job and in fact, you really should be adequately compensated. But the reality is that Alabama’s workers’ compensation laws1 are antiquated (“modernized” in 1992) and not favorable to injured employees. That is why a lot of employees who go to an attorney after being injured on the job find themselves feeling very let down when they discover the actual compensation they will end up receiving and how long the process can take. A problem that leads to this result is how often most people are misled by advertisements seen on billboards and television commercials promising millions of dollars in compensation. It is unrealistic and does not align with the current Alabama workers’ compensation laws.
Since 1985, a scheduled member injury such as a finger, hand or foot, pursuant to Alabama Code §25-5-68, caps recovery of permanent partial disability benefits to injured workers to a maximum of $220 per week. This is the lowest amount in the country.2 Under Alabama Code §25-5-57(a)(3)g., temporary total disability benefits are two-thirds of a workers’ average weekly wage, but cannot exceed a maximum amount set by law each year. As of July 1, 2019, the maximum benefit is $892 per week. This cap only kicks in if the annual salary is around $65,000 or more. In the past twenty years, several attempts in our legislature to change the law and update these figures have failed.
Propublica.org published an interactive article3 that shows the large discrepancies between what injured employees can recover in each state for various body parts they hurt on the job. Sadly, it is a great demonstration of how outdated and behind Alabama’s workers’ compensation laws are, given that each injured body part is worth significantly less compared to the majority of other states in the United States. For example, in Alabama, a fully injured arm can be worth up to $48,000, but that same injury in Georgia may be worth up 10-20x (or more) that amount.
This is happening, in part, because Alabama’s laws have not been modernized since the early 1990s when the cost of living was much less and $220 was two-thirds of the Alabamian workers’ average weekly wage. That arm injury mentioned above is worth the same in 1994 as it is twenty-five years later in 2019. (Reread that sentence!) Does gas, milk or groceries cost the same now as it did in 1994? Not even close. The cost of living rises annually, but not the value of injuries to Alabama employees.
Injured workers in Alabama are not the only employees affected. Around the country, workers’ compensation laws have been slashed and dismantled over the last decade. 4 This is being caused by big businesses and insurance companies claiming that costs are out of control, while they are disguising this dismantling of workers’ compensation benefits as “reform” due to the “high costs”. In fact, this has been proven to be false – employers have pushed off these costs to American taxpayers. This was discovered during an investigation conducted by ProPublica and the NPR,5 which among other things also discovered:
- Since 2003, legislation in 33 states have passed workers’ comp laws that reduce benefits or make it more difficult for those with certain injuries and diseases to qualify for them. Florida has cut benefits to its most severely disabled workers by 65% since 1994.
- Where a worker gets hurt matters. Because each state has developed its own system, an amputated arm can literally be worth two to ten times as much on one side of a state line than the other. Another stark example how far behind we are in Alabama… the maximum compensation for the loss of an eye is $27,280, but $261,525 in Pennsylvania. Wow! Why would people want to work in Alabama where the injury benefits are so far behind?
- Many states have not only shrunk the payments to injured workers, but they have also cut them off after an arbitrary time limit — even if workers have not fully recovered. One not so unusual example was after John Coffell seriously hurt his back at an Oklahoma tire plant, his wages dropped so dramatically that he and his family were evicted from their home.6 His situation is far from uncommon. Sadly, we have dealt with that situation with our clients many, many times.
- Employers and insurers increasingly control medical decisions, such as whether an injured worker needs surgery. In 37 states (including Alabama), workers cannot pick their own doctor or are restricted to a list provided by their employers. Additionally, utilization review (a health insurance company’s opportunity to deny a request for medical treatment) further slows down the request for much needed medical care.
- In California and many other states, insurers reopen old cases and deny medical care (like utilization review) based on the opinions of doctors who never see the patient and don’t even have to be licensed in the state. One really bad situation of this was involving Joel Ramirez, who was paralyzed in a warehouse accident, had his home health aide taken away, leaving him to sit in his own feces for up to eight hours. 7
The laws for employees in workers’ compensation cases in some states in America, including Alabama, are completely unacceptable and need drastic changes. Given these findings, Alabama workers’ compensation laws need a different type of “reform” than what the big corporations and insurance companies have in mind. At the very least, the laws need a reformation that allows adequate compensation for the injured employee. They need to be modernized, based on the current economy and ever-evolving societal needs for injured workers. We truly hope that these laws in our State are brought into alignment with other states that better protect their workers.
In the meantime, as we have since 1967, we will continue to protect the legal rights of our clients – those who are hurt on the job while working for Alabama employers. If you have been injured on the job and want to learn your rights, please consider contacting the Nomberg Law Firm. Our office number is 205-930-6900 and website www.NombergLaw.com. Our office is located in Birmingham, Alabama. We handle cases throughout our great State.
Bernard D. Nomberg has been a lawyer for more than 20 years. Bernard has earned an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell’s peer-review rating. In 2018, Bernard was named a Super Lawyer for the 6th year in a row and he was recognized as one of the Top 50 Lawyers in Alabama.