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New Law Changes North Carolina Workers Compensation Benefits

A truly horrible bill that would have significantly limited injured workers’ rights was introduced into the North Carolina General Assembly in early 2011. Since then, the bill underwent major changes before it eventually became law. The legislation is still generally a negative change for injured workers, but it is now much more complicated and not quite as bad.

Who Is Affected?

The new workers’ compensation law went into effect on July 1, 2011. Fortunately, most of the worst provisions only apply to cases in which injuries happen after that date. However, some parts, generally about medical treatment and communication with doctors, apply to existing cases. Therefore, injured workers may wish to contact a North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer when those issues crop up.

Major Workers’ Compensation Changes

The most obvious changes are to the duration of workers’ compensation benefits. Several of the changes are complicated and interrelate with each other. First is a new limit on how long an injured worker can be paid for being out of work. Before the new law, compensation for total disability was available for as long as the worker was disabled. Under the new law, there is a 500-week limit.

However, if the worker is still disabled 425 weeks after the injury, he or she can apply for an extension beyond the 500-week limit. No one knows how difficult it will be to prove what is needed to get the extension, and since the limit only applies to injuries that happen after July 1, 2011, we will not find out for about nine years. If your injury occurred before that date, the old law still applies.

A related change, which also applies only to cases arising after July 1, 2011, is to the definition of suitable employment. Under the old law, when determining whether an injured worker was disabled, the law included consideration of (along with physical ability to do the job, education, experience, age, etc.) whether an available job paid closely enough to the job of injury to be suitable. A new definition of “suitable employment” leaves out the wage factor. It is far from clear how this change will affect cases, if at all.

Another change that relates to how people get paid is an increase in the time that an injured worker can be paid compensation based on wage loss, when a post-injury job pays less than the job of injury. Under the old law, which applies to all cases in which an injury happened before July 1, 2011, if the worker returns to a lower-paying job, he or she can choose to be paid 2/3 of the difference in wages.

However, and this is the reason that legal advisors so often oppose returning to lower-paying jobs, that kind of compensation can only go on until a date 300 weeks (or about six years) after the injury, after which the compensation stops and the injured worker is stuck with only the lower wage from the replacement job. Under the new law, the duration of that kind of compensation was increased to 500 weeks (or about 10 years). That reduces the damage from being forced into a lower-paying job, though it is not enough to offset the limit on compensation for total disability.

On the other hand, the new law also includes a requirement that, if the replacement job pays less than 75 percent of the pre-injury wage, the insurance company can be forced to pay for vocational rehabilitation to help the worker get better wages. While it is, again, hard to predict how this will affect future claims, there might be a change in how vocational rehabilitation works in North Carolina workers’ compensation cases from the current situation in which vocational rehabilitation is treated as a service to the insurance company to one in which the system is oriented toward helping injured workers.

The bill also increased the duration of compensation paid to an injured worker’s next of kin or other beneficiaries from 400 weeks to 500 weeks if the worker dies from the injury. This is an improvement, but again, it is not enough to offset the damage done by other changes.

This only scratches the surface of these new and complicated changes to North Carolina workers’ compensation law. If you have questions about how the workers’ compensation laws apply to you, contact a qualified and experienced workers’ compensation attorney.