Why disability means different things in workers’ compensation and social security

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Workers’ compensation benefits are described as temporary and permanent disability benefits in Nebraska. When many people hear the word disability they think or say “ I don’t want/need permanent disability, I can work.”

I understand the sentiment, but I think non-lawyers confuse Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits with workers’ compensation disability benefits.

Broadly defined, disability means how a medical condition or injury impacts someone’s ability to earn wages. There are many differences between the workers’ compensation disability and social security disability, but so-called “non-scheduled” workers’ compensation benefits and SSDI benefits are both paid based on how an injury impacts your ability to earn a living. In both types of claims judges will rely on vocational counselors as experts in determining the extent of a person’s disability

But a recent United States Supreme Court decision, Biestek v. Berryhill, focused on two key differences between workers’ compensation and social security disability when it comes to evaluating the testimony of a vocational counselor — the standard used to determine disability and the procedures you can use to prove disability. The narrow issue in Biestek was the availability of jobs to the claimant within his work restrictions. I hinted at some of those differences in a post I wrote about Biestek, that you can read here. But here is some further explanation about the differences between disability for the sake of workers’ compensation and social security.

In short, it is easier to discover information about the availability of work in a Nebraska workers’ compensation claim than it is an SSDI claim. Injured workers’ also have more ways to investigate the availability of jobs in a Nebraska workers’ compensation claim than they do in a SSDI claim.

SSDI v. Workers’ Compensation: National vs. Local labor market

In order to obtain SSDI, there must be a finding that a claimant can not find work in the national economy. From reading the Biestek case, it’s fairly clear that the availability of jobs within the national economy is somewhat of a mystery based on spotty public information.

In contrast, in a non-scheduled injury in Nebraska, disability is determined first by the hub community, usually where the employee lives, and the available jobs within that community. One of the main points of contention in this type of litigation is what constitutes a reasonable commute. The questions of the cost of the commute in relation to expected wages and the injured workers’ ability to tolerate the commute are usually the most pertinent issues.

Attorneys for injured workers generally try to limit the size of a labor market for their clients as appropriate. The smaller the labor market, in general the easier it is to see the actual availability of jobs from public sources like online ads and even information from government agencies such as the Nebraska Department of Labor. This information makes it easier to check whether a vocational counselor is basing their opinion on accurate information.

Additionally, an attorney for an injured worker can even often get information about jobs available within the plant or worksite where they were hurt. Often times publicly available sources will only have one listing for large employers. Particularly in small towns in Nebraska, a large meatpacker might be the largest employer in town.  These employers will sometimes attempt to argue that the availability of jobs within their plaint is irrelevant in a workers’ compensation case because they can accommodate most any restrictions. At least during the investigation of a case, judges generally don’t find that argument persuasive. As a result an injured worker can find out what jobs they could do within a large manufacturing or food processing plant

SSDI v. Workers’ Compensation: Differences in procedure. Part of the reason that it is easier to probe the basis for an opinion by a vocational counselor in a Nebraska workers’ compensation court than in an SSDI hearing is that rules of civil procedure apply in the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court (See NWCC Rule 4). The rules of civil procedure allow a party to do investigation or discovery into the basis for an expert opinion. In Biestek, the Supreme Court basically stated that the decision would have turned out differently if the rules of civil procedure applied in social security proceedings.

In Biestek, the vocational counselor refused to turn over relevant information based on concerns about confidentiality and the Supreme Court held that was permissible. Because the rules of civil procedure apply in the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court, an employee is generally free to obtain information that is relevant or could be relevant to their case. (See Rule 6-326(a)(1))

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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  1. Pingback: Conventional wisdom about labor shortages works to reduce workers' compensation payouts - Workers' Compensation Watch

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