Like most states, Utah’s Worker’s Compensation statute prohibits an employee from recovering disability compensation when “the major contributing cause of the employee’s injury” is the employee’s unauthorized use of alcohol or a controlled substance. See Utah Code Ann. § 34A-2-302(3)(b). If any amount of a controlled substance or its metabolites is found in an injured employee’s system at the time of the injury, the Worker’s Compensation statute presumes that drug use was the major contributing cause of the injury.
An employee can rebut this presumption by:
- challenging the accuracy of the drug test;
- demonstrating that he or she did not actually use a controlled substance;
- providing expert medical opinion suggesting that the level of controlled substance in the employee’s system does not support a finding that drug use was the major contributing cause of the injury; or
- otherwise demonstrating that drug use was not the major contributing cause of the injury.
A Utah appellate court recently weighed in on this issue when it reversed the Utah Labor Commission’s denial of disability compensation to James Barron in Barron v. Labor Commission.
Mr. Barron was severely injured while at work when he stepped backward off the edge of temporary metal decking at a construction site and fell fourteen feet to a concrete floor below. A urine sample taken at the hospital on the day of the accident tested positive for cocaine metabolites. Mr. Barron admitted to sharing a quarter of a gram of cocaine with a friend two days before the accident but presented evidence tending to demonstrate he was not impaired at the time of the accident, including testimony from co-workers and medical personnel who observed Mr. Baron’s conduct on the day of the accident.
Applying the statutory presumption, the Commission ignored Mr. Barron’s evidence of non-impairment and found that drug use was the major contributing cause of his injury. Specifically, the Commission determined that Mr. Baron must demonstrate that “some other force” apart from his own actions caused his injury to overcome the presumption. Following case law from a number of other states with similar statutory schemes, the Utah Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Commission and, for the first time, clarified that employees are not required to show that their injury was the result of an outside force to overcome the statutory presumption. Rather, evidence of non-impairment at the time of the accident may be used to rebut the presumption and to demonstrate that drug use was not the major contributing cause of injury.
So, when does the use of alcohol or a controlled substance preclude workers' compensation benefits? The answer: almost always, but not when employees can demonstrate that they are not impaired, despite the presence of controlled substances within their systems.
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In a highly visual public expression of its commitment to wage-and-hour violations, and to encouraging employees to file wage and hour complaints, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division entered the world of Smartphone apps when it recently launched its own “DOL-Timesheet” app for the iPad and iPhone. At first glance, the DOL-Timesheet App may not appear to be much more than the contemporary technological equivalent of a pad of paper, pencil, and some simple math. But not only does the DOL-Timesheet app track an employee’s hours and wages, it also: (1) contains a glossary of wage and hour terms; (2) informs workers about their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA); (3) contains easy to use links to contact the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division via phone or email; and (4) specifically instructs employees on how to file a wage violation complaint.
With all it does, there are still significant shortcomings and problems with the DOL-Timesheet app. The DOL candidly admits that the app does not address tips, commissions, bonuses, deductions, holiday pay, pay for weekends, shift differentials and pay for regular days of rest. Additionally, the potential for human error or abuse creates inherent problems with reliability which may call into question the apps utility in a court of law. For example, it is unclear whether the DOL-Timesheet app includes metadata that would allow an employer to determine the time and date employees entered their time which in turn creates the potential that employees might overinflate their hours to seek benefits and compensation to which they may not be entitled.
Despite its shortcomings, the DOL left little question that it hopes and intends to use the information an employee tracks through its new app in its enforcement efforts when it stated the following in its press release announcing the app:
“This new technology is significant because, instead of relying on their employers’ records, worker now can keep their own records. This information could prove invaluable during a Wage and Hour Division investigation when an employer has failed to maintain accurate employment records.”
For employers, the key phrase in the DOL’s statement is the last. An employee’s personal time records are unlikely to supplant or surpass an employer’s properly maintained time records. But in the absence of a well maintained and effective time-tracking system, an employee’s personal time records will quickly rise in value in the court’s eyes.
It remains to be seen whether the DOL-Timesheet will garner much attention and use from employees. However, regardless of its ultimate popularity, the DOL-Timesheet app serves as a clarion call to employers to get their proverbial wage-and-hour houses in order. If you are uncertain whether your wage and hour practices hold water under the FLSA, now is as good a time as any to take a good hard look at them.
Employee handbooks can operate as a useful management tool to ensure fairness and consistency in employment practices which in turn may limit an employer’s exposure to unwanted and costly litigation. But if not carefully drafted an employee handbook may unwittingly supply a disgruntled employee with greater ammunition on the legal battlefield. A couple of Utah employers recently saw this play out with different results.
In Hoko v. Huish Detergents, Inc., a 2010 Utah District Court decision, an employee sued his employer alleging disparate treatment and wrongful termination after he was discharged for abuse of the internet policy set forth in his employee handbook. The handbook, however, disclaimed any intent to create an employment contract and the employee signed an acknowledgement of receipt of the handbook indicating he understood his at-will status. Further, there was no evidence his employer had enforced the internet policy differently with other employees holding similar positions. The Court ultimately dismissed both of the employee’s claims.
In Cabaness v. Thomas, a 2010 Supreme Court of Utah case, things went down much differently. In that case, the employee brought suit against his employer alleging breach of an implied contract created by promises made in the employment manual. As in Hoko, the employer argued that a disclaimer precluded a finding of intent to contract. But unlike in Hoko, the disclaimer only indicated that the handbook did not create a contract “with respect to” certain aspects of the employment relationship. The Court ruled that the limited disclaimer in conjunction with the promise like provisions set forth in the employment manual evinced the employer’s intent to undertake additional duties and accordingly held for the employee.
The Hoko and Cabaness cases provide examples of two opposite ends of the spectrum. Both provide useful insights into the do’s and don’ts of drafting employee handbooks. What follows is a short list of points an employer might glean from these cases as well as some additional thoughts to consider when drafting or reviewing employee handbooks.
1. Make sure your employee handbook contains a broad “clear and conspicuous” disclaimer indicating that neither the handbook, any provisions therein, nor other similar materials are intended to create a contract or alter the at-will employment status of an employee.
2. Use language that is easy to understand and not susceptible to various reasonable interpretations. This avoids confusion on the part of your employee and potential legal battles over whose interpretation is correct.
3. Avoid using language that could be read as a definitive promise. This includes avoiding word such as “must,” “shall,” “will,” “required,” or other words and phrases that imply an employer has made a definitive promise.
4. If your employee handbook includes specific grounds for disciplinary action or termination, make sure it also indicates the list is demonstrative and not exhaustive.
5. Once your policies and procedures are established, stick to them and apply them uniformly to avoid claims of disparate treatment.
6. Include and ask each employee to sign an acknowledgment provision that indicates the employee’s receipt of the employee handbook and documents their understanding that it does not create a contract.
7. Review and update employee handbooks regularly. Workplace conditions change rapidly. For example, the internet and social media continually demand greater attention within the work place. If you do not have any policies regarding internet usage in your handbook, it’s probably time to think about some revisions.
8. Consider having your employee manual reviewed by your legal team. State and federal laws are continually evolving and you want to make sure that your employee handbook is up to date with the latest changes in employment law.