Help Wanted: Workers’ Compensation rights

DEAR CARRIE: My 84-year-old mother-in-law works for a country club in the catering and restaurant division. She has worked there for 20 years and has used just four sick days. She works all holidays and even double shifts when called upon.

She recently tripped at work and missed three days because she hurt her knee. When she later called for her schedule, she was told the country club didn’t need her any longer. No one will say she is fired, just that she’s not needed.

She is distraught because she loved having a place to go three to four days a week. Does she have any recourse? — In-Law Done Wrong?

DEAR IN-LAW: She could have some recourse if she files a workers’ compensation claim, something she should do immediately, said employment lawyer Michael J. Borrelli of Borrelli & Associates in Great Neck. That could afford her some protection.

New York State Workers’ Compensation Law . . . prohibits an employer from discharging or discriminating against an employee because such employee has claimed or is attempting to claim workers’ compensation benefits,” he said. “Thus, if the employer takes any adverse action against the employee because she has claimed or is attempting to claim benefits, it is illegal.”

He also said that if her injury qualifies as a disability under state law, the country club could be in violation of that law for letting her go.

“The term disability under the law means actual or perceived,” he said. “Thus, if the company believes that her injury will be a disabling condition that will interfere with her ability to work for them, they may be liable for disability discrimination.”

Short of the above, your mother-in-law may have no recourse, despite being a model employee. That’s because New York is an employment-at-will state, Borrelli noted. Under that doctrine, an employer can fire an employee at any time for no reason at all.

“The fact that this woman has worked for 20 years, has used only four sick days and does double shifts when called upon is admirable but has no legal ramifications on a company’s decision to make an employment decision,” he said.

While the company may have acted legally, repaying a longtime employee’s loyalty with a dismissal after an injury, I believe, is morally questionable.

DEAR CARRIE: My wife was recently laid off, and her employer terminated her health insurance coverage the next day. Is the former employer required to keep my wife on its health insurance until she makes a determination to elect or not elect COBRA? If she elects COBRA, would she be responsible for premiums retroactive to the time of her termination? — COBRA Query

DEAR COBRA: Unless a contract says so, companies are free to terminate health benefits when an employee leaves. Because benefits aren’t required by law, employers can set the terms for initiating the coverage or ending it.

But here’s the good news: The COBRA benefits would be retroactive to when her company benefits ended, which means she wouldn’t have a gap in her coverage, the U.S. Labor Department said. But she is responsible for the full cost. COBRA statutes give former employees access to their former employer’s group rates. But the ex-employees have to pay the entire price of the premium and up to 2 percent in administrative costs.

It is important to note that federal COBRA laws apply to employers with at least 20 workers. But New York State requires companies with fewer than 20 employees to provide the equivalent of COBRA benefits.