As the New Year looms, the 100 year old workers compensation system continues its awkward foray into the 21st century, it encounters problems beyond its original design: the widespread availability of opioids, increasing sophistication in medical interventions, and an aging workforce. Today we examine a formerly inconceivable conundrum: can an 80 year old man be expected to return to work after an injury?
Kenneth Brunner graduated high school in 1949 and worked steadily all his life: From 1951 through 1993 he ran the family dairy farm with help from his wife, an accountant. Brunner raised crops; used a tractor, plow and other farm machines, kept track of feed and each animal's output. He took milk samples from each cow and sent them for analysis; after receiving reports, he adjusted feed for each animal to maximize output. He supervised two to three individuals on the farm.
From 1954 through 1984 he supplemented his farm income by driving a school bus - work which, in the view of the Ohio workers comp commission, required the ability to work independently and use judgment.
From 1968 through 2000 Brunner also was employed as an insurance adjuster. He estimated crop loss for an insurance company, a job that required using scales, taking samples and writing reports. In 1990, at age 58, he was certified for insurance sales.
In January 2011, at age 77, he was working in a maintenance job, when he tripped on a drain pipe and fell face first onto pavement. His injuries were severe:bilateral frontal bone fracture; fracture lateral wall right maxilla; fracture bilateral paranasal sinuses; closed fracture bilateral nasal bone; open wound of forehead; abrasion face; closed fracture C2 vertebra.
He received workers comp benefits. A couple of years into his recovery, he filed for permanent total benefits (PTD). Brunner was 80 years out and had had enough of working.
Brunner's treating doctor concluded that he would never work again:
This claimant has an injury that is permanent and for which there is no curative therapy. This claimant has progressively suffered loss of function and has had to endure progressively more pain. The exam above shows that there is so little functional capacity and that the claimant is so affected by his condition and its required care, that there is no capacity for sustained remunerative employment and that there is no reasonable employer that would ever hire the claimant expecting any work capacity.
Based on the examination above, review of documents, and based on sound medical reasoning I find that the allowed physical conditions, independently and by themselves, render the claimant permanently and totally disabled and unfit for all sustained remunerative employment.
Once a Worker, Always a Worker?
The Ohio workers comp commission reviewed Brunner's claim for PTD benefits. They took into account his age, as well as his resume in determining that he was still capable of working. While most of his living involved physical labor, throughout his working life Brunner had displayed skills that at least theoretically were transferable to sedentary work. As a result, they rejected Brunner's request for PTD benefits. The commission did not address the likelihood of anyone offering Brunner a sedentary job.
An appeals court upheld the denial of the claim, finding that the commission did not abuse its discretion: (1) in weighing Brunner's age in assessing the non-medical factors; and (2) in determining that Brunner has some transferable skills.
It appears that Brunner's longevity worked against him. He labored well into his 70s and displayed unusual fortitude in recovery from serious injuries. Because the premise of PTD payments is protection for disabled workers who are available for work but no longer able to do it, Brunner finds himself ineligible for benefits. In a supreme irony, his ability to work as an older worker precluded the conclusion that he was unable - even at 80 - to continue working.
Brunner's dilemma is by no means unique. As the workforce ages, as more and more workers continue labor late into their seventies and even 80s, a paradox emerges: the point where one is too old to work recedes into the haze of the future, leaving injured older workers in a gray zone where their permanent injuries may or may not be compensable and where their (theoretical) ability to work mitigates against their being paid not to work.
In the months and years ahead we will see more and more litigation involving the claims of "older" workers with ages far beyond what was contemplated in the original workers comp system. State by state, the system will have to respond, becoming the focal point of economic, social and even psychological forces that are far larger than workers, comp stakeholders and state policy makers combined. This is an evolving narrative of surpassing interest. Stay tuned.