Recession brings new challenges for injured workers, attorney says

BRAINERD - The current economic crisis poses special challenges for injured workers, who may feel reluctant to report injuries they’ve incurred on the job, a noted workers’ compensation attorney says. “There’s a lot of fear in the workplace,” said Bonnie Peterson, an attorney with the law firm of Sieben Grose Von Holtum & Carey. Given the current atmosphere of layoffs and cutbacks, workers who have been injured may fear losing their job and feel pressure to ignore the problem. That would be a mistake, she said.

Peterson addressed participants at the Minnesota Union Women’s Leadership Retreat held April 22-24 and sat down for an interview with Workday Minnesota.

She is in a unique position to discuss the status of injured workers, having been on all sides of the issue – first as a claims adjuster and attorney with an insurance company, then a workers’ compensation judge and now a lawyer advocating for workers.

And she herself is an injured worker.

Several years ago, in her role as a workers’ compensation judge, she hurt her back in a car accident while driving to Bemidji to hear a case. When she filed a claim, she experienced some of the frustration and delays facing other injured workers.

“It’s something I empathize with, especially after I had my own injury,” she said.

In 2004, the most recent year for which data is available, 124,000 workers' compensation claims were paid in Minnesota, according to the Department of Labor and Industry. About 80 percent of the claims involved medical coverage only, while 20 percent involved both medical and 'indemnity' benefits, such as lost wages and rehabilitation costs.

The number of workers' compensation claims has dropped in recent years, but the number of cases in dispute continues to rise.

Disputes mostly center on whether the applicant has an injury that is work-related and the extent of the injury. Sometimes an employer will dispute an employee’s right to retrain for another job because of an injury. In other cases, insurers disagree about who is responsible for coverage, with the injured worker caught in the middle.

Even when a worker wins in Workers’ Compensation Court, rulings can be appealed, further drawing out the process.

“It’s sometimes almost overwhelming” for someone who has experienced an injury, Peterson said.

Cases involving slight injuries or very severe injury or death are generally resolved quickly, Peterson noted. Most cases that go on for months are the “in-between people – workers who recover sufficiently, but can’t lift 100 pounds anymore for their high-paying job.”

Over the years, Peterson has seen a change in the types and frequency of workplace injuries. Today, stronger workplace safety standards have resulted in fewer workers suffering from respiratory illnesses or asbestos exposure. But more people are experiencing back problems and carpal tunnel injuries.

Peterson also has noted an increase in work-related depression.

The maximum weekly benefit for lost wages was raised last October to $850 a week, but few workers qualify for that amount and most payments fall short of what workers need to survive, she said.

“There is a real false impression in the public that people take advantage of workers’ compensation,” she noted. “No one wants to take advantage of workers’ compensation – it doesn’t pay you anything.”

Peterson was among the first wave of women graduates from law school and among the first women in Minnesota to work as a judge or attorney in the workers’ compensation system.

After graduating from William Mitchell College of Law in 1977, she was hired in the claims department of Wausau Insurance, moving to the legal department after earning her law license. Eventually her interest in helping injured workers led to 15 years of service as a Workers’ Compensation Judge for the state of Minnesota. In 2002, she came full circle by taking a job as an attorney in the Minneapolis office of Sieben Grose Von Holtum & Carey.

“There aren’t many people who have as many years in the system as I do,” Peterson noted.

Her clients have ranged from carpenters to flight attendants. In some cases involving permanent disability, she has been able to win six-figure settlements. But considering what these workers have experienced, “I’ve never gotten a client more than they deserve,” she said.