COVID-19 Update: How We Are Serving and Protecting Our Clients

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In June, the Office of Unemployment Compensation from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry will implement a new Unemployment Compensation system. The primary initiative of this system is to allow applicants to navigate the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s website easier and to complete filing for benefits more efficiently. As a result, people will be able to file claims quickly and have more time and energy to concentrate on applying for new jobs. Unemployment Compensation has been able to provide compensation payments for decades. After around 40 years of using the same system, the Department has decided to implement new changes to better suit people’s needs.

In addition to making the process of filing for weekly and biweekly claims easier, the system will also provide new features. For example, individuals will be able to access a dashboard and message professionals directly using a chat program on the website. The Office of Unemployment Compensation lists that participants will also have the capability to file a new claim, access information about claims, check the status of claims, and the ability to change options on how they can receive communication services and to withhold federal income tax. The Office also states that employers could view information as it becomes available, receive faster response times, and have expert communication about information changes. The current unemployment system sends certain information, such as hearing dates, to individuals on paper through the postal service. With the new system, people will be able to view their notifications and updates online.

The Office of Unemployment Compensation claims that the new program will transition Unemployment Compensation, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Extended Benefits, Shared Work or Short-Time Compensation, and Trade Readjustment Allowances. Since the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is provided by the CARES Act, it is considered a separate program and will remain unaffected by the change.

During the winter months, Pennsylvania receives large amounts of snow that usually last for a long period of time. Ice typically follows after snow, which causes roads to be extremely dangerous for drivers. The Federal Highway Administration states that more than 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,800 people are injured in vehicle crashes during snow and ice conditions annually. The chance of causing or being involved in a winter auto accident increases as weather conditions become more severe.

AccuWeather states that there are three common accidents that can occur in the winter, including spin out collisions, rear end crashes, and lane drifting accidents. Icy conditions can potentially cause drivers to lose control and drift off the road or in the opposite lane of traffic. Spin out collisions are very dangerous and any slight movements of the wheel can make the problem worse. It is recommended for drivers to turn the wheel in the direction that they are spinning. Black ice is a transparent layer of ice on roads and paved areas, which is especially dangerous while driving. It is difficult for drivers to see black ice and can potentially cause an accident. In fact, icy roads are one of the top common winter auto accident contributors. In extreme weather conditions, drivers can lose control and crash off the road or into other cars.

Once cars start to slide on ice, they can also slide into other people and cause a rear end crash. Cars should keep a safe distance between each other, especially when driving in the winter. Generally, staying two to three car-lengths away from the car in front is a safe distance. Driving through a snowstorm or blizzard also has many problems. In this occasion, it can be very hard to see the lines on the road. As a result, lane departures can be common. Following tracks made by previous cars can be an easy solution to prevent moving into another lane.

An organization that protects safe and healthy work conditions for employees in the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has failed its mission in a meat packaging plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Three workers have filed a lawsuit in a federal court against the agency claiming that they have caused the plant to become dangerous and potentially fatal to all the employees.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an agency of the United States Department of Labor. The organization was created under the Occupational Safety and Health Act by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970. The primary goal of OSHA is to protect employees by observing and verifying that working conditions are updated and safe to work in. However, the government foundation was unsuccessful at ensuring secure environments at a meat packaging franchise. Maid-Rite Specialty Foods is a frozen food manufacturer that produces meat products, such as chicken, pork, turkey, beef, and veal. Recently, their plant in Scranton has experienced an influx of attention, due to its questionable practices.

In July, three meatpacking workers decided to file a lawsuit against OSHA for unsafe working conditions after they failed to respond to the incident previously. The employees stated that the company has produced an “imminent danger” throughout the plant by inadequately implementing codes and procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Originally filed in May, the suit states that Maid-Rite did not supply workers with appropriate equipment and failed to implement social distancing guidelines. In response, Maid-Rite reported to OSHA that they are not able to maintain a 6 feet distance between workers on the production lines, but they have provided workers with masks, given them staggered breaks, and performed deep cleanings of the plant. As a result, OSHA closed the case. Since then, one person who spoke out against the manufacturer claims that they did not separate sick workers in the plant, and people failed to tell the company that they were infected. In addition, the employee claimed that Maid-Rite provided workers with an incentive to work by providing bonuses to people who did not miss a day of work. According to public health officials, this decision encourages people to work when they are potentially sick. All the evidence described has led workers to go to a federal court in order to receive changes in their current working conditions.

Famous auto insurance giants are being sued by policyholders for providing insufficient financial relief to motorists during the pandemic. Among those accused include: Allstate, Geico, Progressive, Erie Insurance, American Family Insurance, and The Travelers Company. These well-known insurers are currently facing major allegations by Illinois residents for their inappropriate rebates to financially unstable clients.

During the height of the pandemic, companies issued policies for their employees to work remotely from home. As stated in the lawsuits, miles driven by motorists dropped by almost two-thirds during the spring. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that the rate of unemployment rose to 14.7% in April 2020. Previously, the rate was 10.3%, which they claim is the highest rate increase in the history of their data records. At this time, the statistics from the United States Department of Labor show that the number of people who were unemployed increased from 15.9 million to 23.1 million. Also, the governor of Illinois, J. B. Pritzker, announced that residents should stay at home to reduce exposure to COVID-19. As a result, people did not have to use their vehicles as often as they previously did.

However, insurance companies did not reduce premiums or rates during the pandemic. Now, multiple lawsuits are emerging against the insurers. In an Illinois Cook County Circuit Court, people protested that high rates have greatly affected their financial status. Although some of the alleged insurers offered some support to customers, it was not a significant amount that would cause the policyholders to drop the case. Clients state that a community State Farm offered its customers a 25% credit during March 20 to May 31 of this year. In contrast, a local Allstate in Northbrook offered a 15% credit for April, May, and June. Consequentially, the lawsuits accuse the companies responsible to be in violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. The legislation protects consumers, borrowers, and business workers against fraud or deceptive actions in trade or business activities. As stated in the lawsuits, the clients expect that as long as the disease continues to spread, the abnormal amount of rebates will pursue.

Popular ridesharing companies are currently facing extreme criticism for an undefined classification of their employees and for providing inadequate wages. People claim that Uber and Lyft are deliberately labeling drivers as “independent contractors” instead of employees. An Independent Contractor status means Uber and Lyft to not need to reimburse drivers for expenses such as mileage and car maintenance, nor are they required to pay drivers minimum wage, unemployment, and sick pay benefits, which as employees they would legally receive.

Uber Technologies, Inc. (Uber) is an American multi-purposeful company that has become a worldwide phenomenon since it was founded in 2009. According to Uber, there are currently 900,000 Uber drivers in the United States, and it is projected that there are about 3 million drivers throughout the world. Uber has announced that there are 75 million riders worldwide, and the company has completed 6.9 billion trips in 2019. Primarily located in the United States and Canada, Lyft, Inc. is another carpooling service that is similar to Uber. With over 1.4 million drivers, Lyft continues to expand its accessibility to clients in both countries. The two establishments employ drivers to offer a variety of services, including delivering food and providing rides for transportation. In fact, a majority of Uber drivers also work for Lyft. As the businesses continue to grow, the debate over the companies’ employee policies becomes more imminent.

The major lawsuits are predominantly occurring in California, where both companies are headquartered in San Francisco. In May, a lawsuit concerning the misclassification of drivers was opened. As a result of the case, a judge has allowed Uber and Lyft to change their classification of drivers as a preliminary injunction. If the companies fail to response to this decision, the judge will prohibit the terminology of drivers as independent employees. As stated by law in California, ridesharing establishments are required to announce their drivers as official employees. Following the previous and current lawsuits, California has updated strict and specific laws for people to be independent contractors. Since then, other numerous lawsuits have surfaced. California’s Labor Commissioner declared that the businesses are being charged for alleged wage theft. Also, they have been accused of not providing certain benefits for their workers that are mandatory under state law. Under the misinterpretation of drivers as independent contractors, they were not required to provide benefits. Now that the term is being viewed incorrectly, Uber and Lyft will have to compensate for the financial losses.

Last month, Schuylkill County and the surrounding areas experienced an unusual and plentiful amount of rain; however, one small borough received a little more than most. With a population of just over 700 people, the main street of Gilberton was transformed into a river of eight feet of water. Since the water levels were progressively rising, multiple people had to evacuate their homes into boats to get to safety.

Officials reported that the peculiar amount of water was partially the result of construction and clogged drainage pipes on a bridge in the town. They believe that the bridge and its piping system was unable to contain the rushing waters of the Mahanoy Creek, which caused Main Street to flood. Gilberton’s drainage and piping system was severely damaged. Eventually, six pumps from New Jersey were used in draining the water levels and are currently serving as the primary way to move water through the town. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), an agency that supervises issues of transportation for the state, was working on construction for the bridge before the flooding occurred.

Local towns and organizations partnered together to supply the residents of Gilberton with life essentials, such as food, water, and clothing. Organizations, such as veteran groups and Boy Scouts, and businesses, like Lowe’s and Advanced Auto, have donated to the relief fund. Only 3 miles away, Girardville, another small community, donated cleaning supplies to help people restore and disinfect their homes. Items included gloves and cleaners, along with clothes, rags, and non-perishable food. The mayor and residents of Gilberton started a donation drive for the families of the damaged homes. They expect that the town will need a substantial amount of financial help in order to restore the town’s water system and appearance.

At O’Connor Law, we wish to update you on the phases of shutdown affecting counties throughout the state. We hope everyone continues to stay safe as they can as the economy reopens.  Since the COVID-19 spread among Pennsylvania, all the counties in Pennsylvania have been quarantined under 3 different phases, which are red, yellow and green. During March and April of 2020, all of the counties in PA entered the red phase, the most restrictive stage, due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. As the situation has stabilized throughout the state, a large amount of counties in Pennsylvania are transitioning from the red phase to the yellow and green phases. The transition of the yellow and green phases are the next steps for Pennsylvanians to return to work safely without being harmed by the virus.

Here are the guidelines for the yellow and green phases:

Yellow Phase

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our state, our country, and our society.  As the impacts linger and possibly increase, many employees deemed “essential” continue to put themselves at risk of exposure to the virus to fulfill societal needs.  Many companies have gone to great lengths to ensure their employees remain safe during these trying times, but some continue to lag.

If you or someone close to you has been asked to work in a hazardous or dangerous work environment, especially during this pandemic, you may have the right to decline to do certain activities, or to even work at all.  Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be worn whenever possible, along with other reasonable precautions.  Details about hazardous work conditions can be found at https://www.osha.gov/right-to-refuse.html.

A great example of legal action surrounding COVID-19 and workers comes from the Chicago, Illinois area.  The family of a Wal-Mart employee, who passed away due to complications from COVID-19, is suing the company because his manager ignored his symptoms and failing to let coworkers know he may have contracted the virus.  Furthermore, the suit also mentions a coworker by name who died from COVID-19 complications just 4 days later.  The family filing suit claimed employees were forced to work without gloves or masks, and social distancing requirements did not exist.  They also claim that a lack of guaranteed paid sick leave forced workers who would’ve otherwise stayed home to come into work.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has impacted the country and globe with many people being severely sick and not able to work. This pandemic can be tough for older and disabled Americans who are trying to file for Social Security disability. Even people who are able to work in their job even though they may have qualified for SS disability may not be able to find work moving forward due to the virus.  People who want to file for Social Security Disability should know the proper actions to take in order to receive benefits they need.

When there is threat of a national shutdown, it is common for local Social Security offices to close. Here is what to expect when your local Social Security office closes.  Social Security benefits will continue to get paid out without disruption. Online services, including all the information on the Social Security website and the various tools for looking at your own specific Social Security record, are still available. This situation is much better than what people have experienced in the past during government shutdowns. This is due to local Social Security offices not being entirely shut down. Even though that these offices are closed to the public, the staffers are still available on site and online handling people’s needs.

How Can You Apply for Benefits Online?

Weird, quirky, and unique legal cases are always the source of intrigue.  Many times, lawyers, law firms, and those familiar with law are confronted with questions regarding individuals’ or their kin’s rare legal issues.  Most legal knowledge found online and through casual sources will be generic and almost definitely not personalized, which makes it tough to find answers regarding these unique cases.  A recent legal battle involving a woman, a country club, and a staff member of the country club highlights the hoops you may have to jump through just to receive proper compensation.

The battle stems from an October 29th lawsuit filed by a female patron of the Alpine Country Club of New Jersey, in which the woman claims a waiter of the club spilled wine on her seemingly irreplaceable $30,000 handbag, while she enjoyed dinner at the club.  The club denied all liability for the incident and even went as far as to sue their own employee (the waiter) for the damages caused to the woman’s handbag.  The handbag, which is typically a relatively inexpensive accessory, was a rare, discontinued Hermès Kelly bag that was gifted to her by her husband for her 30th birthday.

The representation for the woman affected by the spill admitted it was an accident, but also mentioned it was necessary to specify exactly what happened and who did it.  According to documents, the waiter is not mentioned by name, but rather “John Doe.”

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