You can think of Washington workers’ compensation claims as a journey marked by time-based milestones. These take the form of necessary steps that as an injured or ill employee you must take: notifying your employer of what happened to you, going through diagnostic medical examinations, receiving medical treatment, filing the claim with the Department of Labor and Industries, and if necessary appealing its decision.
Workers’ compensation is designed to protect employees who are hurt on the job. In Washington State, the vast majority of businesses must provide this type of insurance. Most companies have to sign up for workers’ compensation insurance, so that the employees they hire know that they will be protected if they are injured on the job. These injuries can be one-time events, or they can be cumulative injuries from the job itself, such as repetitive stress disorders and other harmful issues.
Employees need to know how they are protected, and employers have to be clear on the level and type of protection they are required to provide. Generally, workers’ compensation laws provide financial protection for employees who are injured on the job or as a result of their job.
Carpal tunnel, back problems, hearing damage, and other types of job-related problems that can show up after months or years of performing a particular job may be covered, and injuries or other health risks that occur because of improper or unsafe working conditions are also covered by this kind of insurance, so employees can be compensated.
Without workers’ compensation insurance, employees who were injured in the performance of their job duties would not have any legal or financial recourse for those injuries. They might get assistance if their employer was kind and thoughtful, but that employer would not be required to do anything to help them. Naturally, that is not a healthy work environment for anyone, no matter the type of job they have.
In Washington State there are many dangerous jobs surrounding the fishing, timber, and logging industries, but safer and more standard jobs are also protected through workers’ compensation insurance.
The workers’ compensation laws include everything from definitions of the rules to safety initiatives for specific classes of jobs, such as loggers. Generally, every business in Washington State that has employees or hires contract labor must cover those people under their workers’ compensation insurance. The largest difference when it comes to what the laws involve has to do with the type and amount of coverage that is necessary, as well as the cost for having the insurance. More dangerous jobs come with higher insurance premiums, because the chances of needing to pay out on an expensive claim are higher.
As an employee you have workers’ comp rights, and with those rights come responsibilities based on the laws of Washington State. Workers shouldn’t engage in blatantly unsafe practices or circumvent the rules in order to try to get things done faster, because that can put them at risk for not following the rules their employer has created for them. When they “cheat” the rules, though, they can reduce their chances of having their workers’ compensation claim paid. Employers have policies in place for a reason, and the main reason is to be sure that employees can perform their jobs safely and effectively without harm.
The way we measure the timing of legal milestones, Workers’ Compensation-related or otherwise, is through statutes of limitation: laws that establish the period of time within which someone needs to act on a legal claim before he or she becomes time-barred from doing so.
Viewers of television crime dramas may be familiar with these statutes, but they go beyond simply cutting off the state’s ability to bring criminal charges. You, too, can be subject to statutes of limitation when you are thinking about making a workers’ compensation claim; and the penalty you might pay for missing one is the loss of your ability to do so.
Another problem you might run into with the Workers’ Compensation statute of limitation is that while it may seem simple when you read it, it can be subject to different interpretations. These can lead to disputes between you and your employer, or the Department of Labor and Industries (“DLI”), or both about whether you filed your claim on time, disputes that can linger even after your claim is initially approved. If later on your claim is denied because a court holds that you missed the statute of limitation, then not only will you lose your future benefits but you may have to repay any you already received.
The first timing consideration you will encounter is not a statute of limitation, but a legal duty: you must “forthwith” notify your employer if you get into an accident on the job. The law does not impose a specific number of days within which you need to give your notice, but you should get this duty out of the way as soon as you can. Putting it off will not change the claim-filing statute of limitation, so there is no advantage in delay. Failing to give it at all would arguably be a breach of your legal duty, and would needlessly complicate filing your claim with the DLI.
Notifying your employer right away can help you to file your Workers’ Compensation claim faster. This is because once you notify the employer, then it has a duty to “at once” report the accident to the DLI (failure to do so is punishable as claim suppression). Once the DLI receives the employer’s notice, it will “immediately” provide you with written notice of your rights under Washington’s Workers’ Compensation system.
The actual statute of limitation for Workers’ Compensation claims imposes a more precise time track compared to your duty to forthwith notify your employer. Depending on the nature of your work-related illness or injury, either of two deadlines will apply to you:
If you are seriously injured enough on the job to be thinking about filing a Workers’ Compensation claim, chances are that you will be aware of your injury when it happens or shortly thereafter.
Occupational diseases, on the other hand, sometimes do not manifest themselves through symptoms for months or even years after the underlying cause becomes known. Prolonged exposure to hazardous materials that eventually leads to a respiratory condition, or repetitive stress injuries are two examples of how this delayed effect can happen. Note also that the two-year statute of limitations for occupational diseases treats hearing loss as a special case: instead of starting the two-year claim filing period when you are diagnosed with this condition, it begins on the date of your last exposure to whatever is causing it.
Filing your Workers’ Compensation claim by mail used to be common, and at least one Washington court decision turned on the question of whether the act of mailing the claim satisfied the “filing” requirement (it did not). Today, the DLI encourages filing online or by telephone; or, if your employer is self-insured, filing directly with your employer. The key thing to remember here is that the date of filing is the date on which the DLI actually receives your claim.
Even if you file by modern electronic means, waiting until the last possible day is not a good idea because if anything delays your filing you could find yourself going beyond the applicable statute of limitation period – and Washington courts have little sympathy for late-filed claims. The only way you can push beyond the time limit is if the last day to file is on a weekend day or a state-recognized holiday, in which case the last day gets bumped to the next business day.
Lastly, it is your responsibility to file your Workers’ Compensation claim. Even though the law requires the doctor or registered nurse who diagnosed you with the illness or injury to provide you with “all necessary assistance” in preparing your claim, getting the claim in on time is still up to you even if they fail in this obligation.
Not all work-related injuries and illnesses can be neatly isolated as single events. What happens, for example, if you experience one occupational disease but later on – past the two-year statute of limitation – another appears, based on the same circumstances that led to your initial claim? Are you precluded from seeking Workers’ Compensation benefits for this later-arising illness? Not necessarily: Washington law allows for re-opening a settled claim “within seven years from the date the first closing order becomes final.”
A major objective of Workers’ Compensation is to eliminate the need for you to file a lawsuit against your employer if you are injured or have an occupational disease. But this policy might not preclude you from having a separate legal claim that you can pursue in addition to a Workers’ Compensation claim. Particularly with on-the-job injuries, the cause of injury can sometimes involve others who have little or no connection with your employment, or even intentional wrongful behavior on the part of someone else you work with. Consider the following situations:
In each of these cases, you might have an independent, tort-based legal claim for compensation, with its own statute of limitation distinct from the Workers’ Compensation limitation.
If your injury or occupational disease is serious enough to lead to a disability that limits or prevents your ability to return to work, you may have one or more other sources of government benefits that you can apply for (for example, Veterans’ benefits or Social Security disability benefits). These have their own claim procedures and deadlines that you will need to take into account separately from the Workers’ Compensation statute of limitation.
You can file your own Workers’ Compensation claim; an attorney is not required. But it should be clear by now that not all such claims are equal. Serious injuries or claims arising from the actions of third parties, or complex situations involving later-developing injuries or illnesses can all affect which statutes of limitation apply to your case. If you miss an applicable legal deadline, you may permanently lose part or all of your potential Workers’ Compensation, civil liability lawsuit, or other disability claims.
Having a workers’ compensation attorney as your advocate during the claim filing process is a good insurance policy against the possibility of you inadvertently missing a statute of the limitation-based cutoff date or failing to recognize other, complementary avenues for compensation. In this important sense, any money you spend on professional legal assistance can be more of an investment than a cost to you.
If you feel you’re not getting the right compensation for your on-the-job injury, or that you have been treated unfairly when it comes to your workers’ compensation claim in Washington State contact Lehmbecker Law today. You need a good legal advocate on your side, and we can discuss your case to see what type of help we may be able to provide to get you the compensation you deserve.
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