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June 03, 2019

Individuals receiving public assistance injured while working in a work experience program are eligible for Workers' Compensation benefits


A recipient of public assistance [Claimant] filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits after sustaining an injury while assigned to work for the County as part of a work experience program [WEP]. Following a hearing, a Workers' Compensation Law Judge [WCLJ] established the claim for a work-related injury, finding that Claimant's average weekly wage was $124.62.  The Claimant did not return to work but was not paid a workers' compensation benefit for lost wages because he was receiving his regular public assistance benefit. The WCLJ, however, kept the claim open for further medical evidence regarding permanency of the injury and schedule loss of use.

Claimant subsequently asked that his claim for lost wage benefits be reopened because his public assistance benefit had been suspended due to a change in the composition and income of his household. Ultimately the County asked Workers' Compensation Board [Board] to review the matter, contending that Claimant's public assistance that he received during his work experience program assignment should not be treated as wages for the purpose of calculating a workers' compensation award.* The Board, however, ruled, in part, that public assistance benefit payments made to a claimant pursuant to a WEP constituted wages under the Workers' Compensation Law. The Board and its third party administrator appealed but the Appellate Division dismissed the appeal "as interlocutory."**

A second hearing was then was conducted and the WCLJ found that Claimant had sustained a 7.5% "schedule loss of use" that entitled him to 18.3 weeks of benefits. Ultimately Claimant was awarded $1,830 and the Board concluded that the entire award was payable as a credit to the County. The County and its third-party administrator again appealed the Board's ruling, contending that Claimant is not entitled to any "lost-wage benefits" award because the public assistance benefit that he received was not a "wage" as defined by Workers' Compensation Law §2(9).

After an extensive legal analysis of the matter by the Appellate Division "under well-settled principles of statutory interpretation," the court concluded that the provisions of the "applicable statutory scheme must be construed together and harmonized" in a way that renders them compatible and achieves the legislature's intent rather than to consider the definition of the term wage or wages "in isolation."

Observing that a recipient of public assistance may be required to participate in work activities, including experience working in the public sector, the court opined that "[t]he amount of assistance that a participant in a WEP receives is not determined by the number of hours worked; rather, the number of hours that a recipient of public assistance is required to participate in a WEP is determined by dividing the amount of assistance received by the higher of the federal or state minimum wage." 

Significantly, the decision notes that the fact that recipients of public assistance must participate in a WEP to receive benefits without reduction "means that the public assistance paid to WEP participants directly serves as compensation for the work performed."

Holding that public assistance benefits paid to WEP participants are wages as defined in the Workers' Compensation Law, the Appellate Division opined that its ruling was consistent with the Court of Appeals' observation that the "rate and method of payment of WEP workers is determined by the Social Services Law."***

The decision concluded with the observation that providing awards for WEP participants "injured on the job" also benefits those who host WEP participants "by ensuring that workers' compensation is [a WEP participant's] exclusive remedy for injuries [he or she] sustained in the workplace."

*  While Board review was pending, a WCLJ determined that there was insufficient medical evidence to support an award.

** See 146 AD3d 1065. As a general rule, a party does not have a right to appeal a court's interlocutory order or an interlocutory decision.


The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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