Session Review: Business and Labor

Workers’ compensation, internship grants and employer access to social networking accounts were some of the business and labor concerns addressed this session.

LB21, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, repeals the 2014 sunset provision of a bill passed in 2010 allowing first responders to receive workers’ compensation benefits for solely mental injuries. The bill passed on a 44-0 vote.

Three bills also relating to workers’ compensation were held by the committee.

LB324, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, would revise the interest rate applicable to a workers’ compensation benefit award in cases in which an attorney’s fee is allowed from the rate provided in statute – currently 14 percent – to the judgment rate.

The bill also would allow employees, prior to the time of sustaining an injury, to “opt out” of having first injury reports relating to their workplace injuries made available for public inspection or copying except under specified circumstances.

In addition, the bill stipulates that no compensation would be allowed if an employee falsely represented his or her medical condition at the time of hiring and a causal connection existed between the false representation and an injury.

LB291, introduced by Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, would require that medical payments be paid within 30 days after notice is given to the employer or after a final order of the compensation court. Under the bill, 50 percent of the amount payable would be added to the charge and paid to the employee if the medical payment is not paid within 30 days.

LB302, introduced by Cortland Sen. Norm Wallman, would annually adjust a worker’s weekly income benefits for total disability in proportion to the average weekly wage increase.

Papillion Sen. Jim Smith introduced two bills that also were held by the committee.

LB584 would require the scope and duration of medical, surgical and hospital services to be provided in accordance with the official disability guidelines published by the Work Loss Data Institute.

Under the bill, no insurer, risk-management pool or self-insured employer would be responsible for charges for medical, surgical or hospital services not provided in accordance with the official disability guidelines unless such services were:
• provided in a medical emergency;
• preauthorized by the insurer, risk-management pool or self-insured employer; or
• approved by an independent medical examiner.

If the parties to a dispute agreed to use an independent medical examiner, the medical findings of the independent medical examiner would be binding on the parties and constitute a final resolution.

Smith also introduced LB177, which would authorize the state labor commissioner to investigate cases in which employers fail to pay their employees wages under the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act.

Under the bill, the commissioner could assess civil penalties up to $1,000 per violation of the act and determine whether an employer is liable for waiting time damages of 50 percent of the wages that are owed to the employee. Violations would be a Class IV misdemeanor.

Also relating to wage payment collection was LB560, introduced by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, which would require employers to:
• provide employees with 30 days’ written notice before altering the employees’ wages;
• provide employees with an itemized statement listing their wages and deductions on each payday; and
• keep employment records for at least five years if they fall under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practice Act or longer if required by the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission.

Additionally, the bill would prohibit retaliation against individuals who oppose an unlawful employer practice or who testify, assist or participate in an investigation, proceeding or hearing. The labor commissioner could subpoena records and witnesses in such cases. Violations would be considered a Class IV misdemeanor.

LB559, also introduced by Mello, would create a voluntary program that would allow employers to temporarily reduce normal work hours in lieu of temporary layoffs for designated employees. Employees under a short-time compensation plan would be eligible for partial unemployment insurance benefits.

Both of the Mello bills were held by the committee.

Senators passed LB476, which makes changes to a recently created internship grant program.

Under the bill, sponsored by Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson, a resident student enrolled full time in a college, university or other institution of higher education in Nebraska is eligible for an internship. Minimum weekly and hourly internship requirements will be replaced with a requirement that the internship be of a sufficient duration to allow the student to gain significant, valuable work experience and knowledge.

The bill also increases grant amounts for distressed areas with a maximum reimbursement of $7,500 or 75 percent of the cost of the internship if an employer shows that an intern was a Federal Pell Grant recipient at the time of the internship grant application.

The bill passed on a 46-0 vote.

Under a bill introduced by O’Neill Sen. Tyson Larson, employers would be prohibited from requiring employees or applicants to disclose their social network account information or log on to their social networking sites in the employer’s presence.

LB58 also would prohibit employers from accessing employees’ or applicants’ social networking accounts indirectly through third party contacts. A civil action could be brought against an employer one year after the date of an alleged violation.

The bill was held in committee.

Finally, a bill that was part of the Legislature’s budget package approved claims made against the state.

LB536, introduced by the Business and Labor Committee, approved $1.65 million in tort claims, $150,000 in workers’ compensation claims and $72,800 for miscellaneous claims. The bill also includes $2.09 million in write-offs for fiscal year 2012-13.

The bill passed on a 46-0 vote.

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