Heavy lifting: New Jersey’s burgeoning logistics sector is growing challenge for workers’ compensation attorneys

You see the headlines about working conditions; and sometimes the plain bizarre events, such as the rupture of a can of bear repellent several years back that hospitalized dozens at Amazon‘s Robbinsville warehouse.

What you don’t always see: the attorneys who make a business of going to bat for those workers later.

Brian W. Shea’s 17-year career as a workers’ compensation attorney outdates many of the sprawling warehouse and distribution centers sprinkled up and down the New Jersey Turnpike.

But the masses of individuals that have been put to work in those logistics facilities are a large share of the clientele of a lawyer representing injured workers today.

“Every couple of exits, there are all these warehouses, all these employees,” Shea said. “Amazon has become the largest employer in New Jersey. … So, we’ve gotten a wide breadth of work from helping guide these employees through the coverage process when they get hurt.”

Shea, an attorney at Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville, said he’s seeing an increasing amount of clients from these companies. They’re coming to him after suffering both traumatic medical emergencies and long-term, occupational impairments.

“The speed they’re trying to get people to do their work makes it very difficult to do without suffering some type of injury,” Shea said. “It’s hard to keep bending down and twisting to keep up with the quotas. Eventually, you pick up something heavier than you think it is or you tweak your back trying to pick up the pace as you fall behind.”

Shea’s work with blue-collar individuals in New Jersey runs the gamut. He represents the laborer side of disputes in all industries, not just warehouse workers. If anyone’s hurt, he said, he wants to help.

In the Garden State, there were 147,022 reported job-related accidents in 2018, but only about a quarter resulted in petitions for new workers’ compensation claims.

“So, there’s a decent percentage of these injuries that don’t get to the point of people getting an attorney and filing an official workers’ compensation claim,” Shea said. “We want to make sure an injured worker is represented properly all the way through.”

When it comes to workers for e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Wayfair, the biggest challenge sometimes is knowing who’s directly responsible for employees.

“Often, the first thing to figure out with these clients is who they actually work for,” he said. “There’s a lot of staffing agencies in the area that people go to that then place them at a warehouse.”

Workers, who are best served by reporting injury incidents in a timely manner, sometimes believe they work for the company that directs their activities on a day-to-day basis — only to find out later that it’s another organization they’re employed through, Shea said.

“We’ve had many situations in which a situation was reported to one organization but not the other, and no one involved is sure who should tell the (worker’s compensation insurance) carrier,” he said. “You’ve got people pointing the finger at each other, not sure who was supposed to report it. That’s a lot of times when you get the call from clients at their wits’ end.”

Amazon operates on-site emergency clinics, named AmCare, for workers. The company also provides health benefits for employees for both preventative and care situations, as well as working with third parties for workers’ compensation coverage.

Company representatives say the company invested billions of dollars in new safety initiatives last year alone, and that there’s a team of more than 5,000 safety professionals globally who use Amazon’s technology and data insights to ensure the highest safety standards for workers.

Today, it’s not just slips, falls and thrown-out backs that an attorney such as Shea is dealing with. Warehouse settings have been the center of some outbreaks of coronavirus cases. Just at the end of last month, Amazon temporarily shuttered its Robbinsville warehouse after tests found an uptick of workers with COVID-19.

“When we start talking about what’s happening now with COVID-19 claims, it has caused quite an issue on how to deal with them as a whole,” he said. “When you say something is novel like the novel coronavirus — the law doesn’t always like novel.”

For the time being, increasingly busy workers’ compensation attorneys are urging essential warehouse workers to wait some portion of the two-year statute of limitations for claims before filing for medical care costs, temporary disability benefits or permanent disability benefits.

“The problem is, we’re finding out people are developing other problems related to this later on,” Shea said. “We want to monitor them for that possibility, instead of closing a case forever right away. We don’t want to close someone’s entitlement to future benefits if we don’t have to.”

When it comes to active COVID-19 infections, Amazon offers paid time off to any employee who needs to be quarantined or receive treatment, on top of regular time off options.

Rachael Lighty, a spokesperson for Amazon, provided this statement regarding the company’s pandemic safety infrastructure:

“Nothing’s more important than the health and safety of our employees, and we’re doing everything we can to support them through the pandemic. In 2020, we invested more than $961 million in personal protective equipment and safety measures, such as mandating masks, temperature screening, installing plexi-shields, additional cleaning teams and providing voluntary COVID-19 testing onsite. We also implemented over 150 significant process changes to make sure we’re keeping our team safe throughout each day, including social distancing measures and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing across every site.”