April 20, 2021
Injured Workers Legal Assistance Project Extends Workers' Access to Justice, Connecting Volunteer Attorneys with Unrepresented Workers
The New York State Workers' Compensation Board has launched its first-ever legal assistance project to help injured workers obtain medical treatment, the Injured Workers Legal Assistance Project (IWLAP). Now, injured workers can complete a simple online form maintained by the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) to directly request a match to a NYSBA member attorney who will represent workers pro bono in certain workers' compensation claims. The form, hosted by NYSBA along with resources and information for attorneys interested in volunteering with NYSBA, is available at the Workers' Compensation Injured Workers Legal Assistance Pro Bono Project webpage, https://nysba.org/pro-bono-services/#workers_compensation_project.
The Board is partnering with the NYSBA to connect volunteer attorneys looking to assist injured workers with these claims. The partnership with NYSBA will allow for faster processing of representation referrals thanks to use of client intake and referral digital platforms. In addition, this partnership will expand upon recent collaboration between New York State and NYSBA's COVID-19 Pro Bono Network, which has offered New Yorkers free legal assistance when seeking unemployment insurance benefits and in probate and estate proceedings.
"This marks another important action in New York's long history of protecting workers' rights and access to benefits," Clarissa M. Rodriguez, Chair of the NYS Workers' Compensation Board, said. "The Injured Workers Legal Assistance Project gives injured workers better access to justice when they have difficulty obtaining medical care for their work-related injury or illness. The Project helps workers with medical-only claims find legal representation, which also improves the overall operation of the workers' compensation system."
Scott M. Karson, president of the New York State Bar Association, said, "New Yorkers who are injured at work deserve legal representation. But often, workers whose only desire is to make sure their medical bills are paid cannot find an attorney. That is why we are partnering with the Workers' Compensation Board to help injured workers focus on healing rather than worrying about how they will pay their medical bills. It is the highest calling of our profession to take on pro bono work and ensure that all New Yorkers have access to justice."
In November 2020, IWLAP launched initially in partnership with the New York State Unified Court System's Attorney Emeritus Program (AEP), and two host legal service non-profit organizations, The Legal Project, based in Albany, and the Worker Justice Center, which has offices in Rochester, Kingston, and White Plains. More than 60 injured workers across New York State have been offered free legal assistance and more than a dozen have consulted with and retained pro bono counsel in that effort.
The AEP, administered in part by Fordham University School of Law, helps recruit volunteer attorneys who assist injured worker clients through one of the host organizations. AEP, The Legal Project and the Worker Justice Center will collaborate with NYSBA and the Board to continue identifying volunteer attorneys and injured workers in need of assistance.
After identifying the need for representation of injured workers in medical-only claims, the Board created IWLAP and invited legal service organizations to partner with it. In these medical-only claims, the insurance carrier or self-insured employer who pays the medical benefits has accepted liability but is disputing the medical treatment sought by the injured worker. These cases typically pose a challenge for injured workers seeking legal representation as no attorney fees are awarded when there are no lost wages.
The Board provides training and support to host legal service organizations and their volunteer attorneys. The Board's virtual hearings system, in use statewide since 2018, makes volunteering for IWLAP especially easy, as the system allows injured workers, attorneys/licensed representatives, and other parties to attend workers' compensation hearings remotely, through secure videoconferencing. Users can log in once and move from one hearing to another, anywhere in the state, eliminating travel and reducing time spent away from work. The virtual hearing system has allowed the Board to continue holding hearings uninterrupted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more information on the NYSBA pro bono effort, interested attorneys may visit https://nysba.joinpaladin.com/nysba/opportunities/help-injured-workers-obtain-medical-treatment/.
For more information on the AEP, visit: http://ww2.nycourts.gov/attorneys/volunteer/emeritus/index.shtml; for The Legal Project, visit: https://legalproject.org/; and for the Worker Justice Center, visit: https://www.wjcny.org/.
For more information on IWLAP, interested legal aid organizations can contact IWLAP@wcb.ny.gov.