Why Injured Workers Hire Attorneys (and What Employers Can Do About It)

Special thanks to myremoteradio.com for the pic.

(The discussion based on this blog was named a “manager’s choice” by Mark Walls, moderator of the Workers Compensation Analysis Group–LinkedIn’s largest workers’ compensation group. Thanks Mark!)

Workers’ compensation got started about a century ago to remove workers and their employers from the tort system when occupational injuries and deaths occurred. Unfortunately this oldest form of American social insurance remains highly litigious – and costly.

Attorney involvement in claims is expensive for injured workers and employers alike. Claims involving attorneys cost an estimated 30 percent more in expenses. And too often, workers do not understand they could stand to lose 10 to 25 percent of their compensation to attorney fees.

Hiring attorneys is often unnecessary. When employers do an effective job communicating to workers about workers’ compensation – especially the claims process — litigation can often be avoided.

The Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) published a study in 2010 that points to this reality. Forty-six percent of injured workers who hired attorneys said they did so because they felt the claim had been denied, according to the study, “Avoiding Litigation: What Can Employers, Insurers, and State Workers’ Compensation Agencies Do? (In full disclosure, WCRI is a client of Lipold Communications.)

It turned out, however, that these workers did not understand that their claims had not yet been accepted into the workers’ compensation claims process.

Insufficient information about what happens after a work-related incident occurs can breed fear. Twenty-three percent who hired attorneys strongly agreed they did so out of concern of being fired or laid off. Fifteen percent also strongly agreed that they needed an attorney because they were worried that their employers might consider claims as illegitimate. (By the way, the WCRI asked 6,823 injured employees with lost-time claims in 11 states that represent 46 percent of paid workers’ compensation benefits.)

Thankfully, there are ways that employers can minimize unnecessary legal action.

Employing a communication plan can discourage uncertainty and save thousands of dollars in potential workers’ compensation cases as I outlined in a previous blog. Training supervisors, also covered in a past blog, also makes a difference because they are often in the best position to communicate and set the tone for injured workers’ experiences.

Insufficient information about what happens after a work-related incident can breed fear.

Since the largest reason why workers hired attorneys was due to fear of their claims being denied, timely communicating a claim’s status should reduce the likelihood of attorney involvement. This reinforces my contention that workers need communication tools that explain the claims process, telling them what to expect and when. Employers would do well to make that investment.

Employers also need to communicate to workers in language they understand. Those interviewed in Spanish hired attorneys twice as often as those who were interviewed in English. Given that workers’ compensation is hard to understand for those of us who speak English, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for those who do not know the language well.

The WCRI study offers more reasons why workers hire attorneys. I’ll cover those in next week’s blog!

(Note: This is part of my ongoing series on What Every Employer Should Know About Workers’ Compensation. Check out the “workers’ compensation” in tag in the left-hand column for more tips.)

18 thoughts on “Why Injured Workers Hire Attorneys (and What Employers Can Do About It)

  1. Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson says:

    The same outcomes are here in Australia.
    For mine it is a process that is way over its useful date, it is time to put a new system in place, where open discussion is the true base to resolve the issues.
    Oddly enough that is exactly what I am doing at the Centre I have opened here in Adelaide.

      • Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson says:

        I agree Annmarie, open honest communication is required.
        My experience is that when both parties sit over a coffee to talk about what challenges they both face then the outcome is much better.
        Two similar instances indicate this.
        Two storemen, both in their mid-fifties, both injured men have serious leg injuries 1 of the men has had an amputation of a leg under the knee.
        Both employers have the same style of manufactoring business.
        One of the injured men sits at home, is now bordering on obese, he rarely leaves the house with the exception of medical or legal appointments, he is all but confined to a wheelchair.
        Not once since his injury has the employer or the supervisor attended any of the case conferences.
        The attitude is “I pay the workers compensation levy, that is the only thing I have to do.”
        The other injured man is back at work, the employer has provided duties that allow for the injured man to move around in his role as storeman, provided transport to and from work, ensured that whilst at work the workplace is as clutter free as is possible.
        The attitude is “we injured and almost killed this man, it is up to us to put things right.”

        The man who is back at work feels valued, at no time has anything been too much to ask for.

        The man who is left at home has a legal bill that simply grows on a daily basis as he constantly calls the law firm for updates etc.
        The man back at work has not engaged a lawyer, because he has not needed to.

        By the way, the man back at work is the man with the partial leg amputation.

        Everything is possible, it comes down to basic communication and the attitudes of both parties.

      • annmariecommunicatesinsurance says:

        Those are good examples. Employers need to send clear messages to employees that they care in general, not just in workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation gets to the heart of the real condition of an employee-employer relationship. It starts at the top with the CEO making it a priority to change the culture so workers feel valued and continues with employee communication that reiterates this message. Giving employees information about workers’ compensation is one way of expressing that they care. You are also right that too many employers feel they paid the premium and that is all it takes. If they are not going to invest more in their employees, they should not be surprised when they see litigation from employees for many reasons with workers’ comp just being one possible reason.

  2. Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson says:

    Annmarie I am often asked to speak at various groups where I talk about how easy it is to simply have a chat find out what is going on. I have long stopped being amazed that employers have really good working relationships before there is a workplace injury, but post injury they seem to have no idea how to speak to the very same employee.

    With TV programmes such as Undercover Boss it is easy to see how employers who want more than just a profit and loss sheet understand that they need to get out of their office, and pick up a broom.

    There really isn’t any mystery or magic involved, it comes down to empathy and true understanding as well as a willingness to try something new – even if all that a business does is engage me to help them with the conversation.

  3. Diane Voiles SCLA says:

    I totally agree with statements made by all. I also encouraged employers to bring the injured employee back to work when they have only been released to light duty. Sometimes that light duty is sit down work only. For a factory worker the employer will sometimes say I have nothing. My response is bring them in and have them count paper clips, pencils and other odd items in an office. Some employers have adhered to that request and amazingly the employee gets so much better in just a day or two. I then get a call from the employer thanking me for talking with them and giving proper advice. I also, on many occasions, advised an employee (before he hires an attorney) of what will transpire while he is off work. And, if he/she doubts what I am telling him then he/she can call the liason for that particular state, giving them their name and telephone number. As an adjuster I always tried to let the employer/employee that I was there to help them in any way possible as I was only a phone call away. That numerous times will help with the claim and keep the claimant from retaining an attorney.

  4. Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson says:

    Injured workers who are supported in a meaningful return to work process do return to work with a better outcome than those who are left without a meaningful place to be.
    I have seen roles for injured workers created so that they remain engaged at the workplace, I have seen events arranged to involve injured workers, I have seen totally new concepts put in place to engage the workplace around the capacity of the injured worker.

    When I am engaged by a workplace to find meaningful work for an injured worker the process I use is very different to what mainstream providers use.It takes a little longer, but the end results are worth the effort.

    • annmariecommunicatesinsurance says:

      This is all true. There are still too many employers who need to be enlightened to this truth. Is it that employers are ignorant of this reality or that they do not honestly care that much about workers unless they are productive? Of course, a successful business needs productive workers but ironically, workers are more productive when they feel loyalty to a company that shows its care for employees. I have talked to enough employers who say that they pay their insurance premium and the insurance companies take care of the rest. The insurance companies pay the bills and hopefully do a good job on case management, but employers simply do not realize they have a greater part to play. And with workers’ compensation being so low on the priority list, it does not get the attention it deserves.

    • annmariecommunicatesinsurance says:

      Agreed on getting the message out. Part of the challenge from a media standpoint is that most reporters do not understand workers’ comp nor do they want to so most coverage on comp stays within the trade press. Part of this is also practical, with reporters having a quick learning curve to cover a lot of subjects, it is easy to understand why they are quickly overwhelmed. Add to this the fact that journalism is mostly a profession for the young. You can barely scrape by on a reporter’s salary in your twenties, but once reporters want houses and families, they end up pursuing better paying professions. With workers’ comp being so complicated, even doing a tweet on it is most challenging even for seasoned communicators. There are other ways to get the message out but it requires a lot of shoe-leather evangelism.

  5. kathleen dixon says:

    I did not want or need an attorney. I was forced into representation by my Insurer’s lawyer. My DOI was 5 years old before any documents were filed at the WCAB. I was only 44 years old when 2 identical injuries, 7 wks apart destroyed my career in nursing. My total disability rating was accepted by SSA, and 3 treating doctors for 5 yrs before a WCJ took everything away from me. The $330,000 Award disappeared. The WCAB computer has incorrect info to this day. The Insurer did not forward my correct DOI to the WCB. The WCJ’s decision did not arrive for 6 months and is based on a paid for incorrect AME’s doctor’s report. My exemplary SN III, MICN, NP and preceptor reputation was destroyed in an attempt to discredit me. My own attorney thought I was not injured as I did not wear my neck/back brace to court. NINE years after my DOI I learned that I had been terminated while recovering from a 2nd neck fusion surgery. Please do not publicize this, as my life has been threatened. I am seeking advice. Thank you

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