New Case: Calculating wages under the Defense Base Act.

in a recent case (decided June 20, 2011) the claimant worked for a long time in foreign combat environments. He then took a “safer” job working on the United States Army Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. In 2008 he sustained a neck injury and was admittedly entitled to medical and lost time (indemnity) benefits. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) had to determine the average weekly wage. The ALJ determined that Claimant’s rate of pay at the time of his injury on the Atoll, a non-hostile environment, would form the basis of his wage calculation under 33 U.S.C. § 910. The claimant appealed, arguing he had earned more when working in more dangerous environments previously.

The Benefits Review Board (“BRB”) upheld the ALJ’s average weekly wage calculation, finding that because the Claimant’s pre-Atoll jobs were performed under different conditions, they would not form the basis for calculating his current wages.

Interestingly, this case is the exact opposite of the typical war zone cases, where a claimant is working in a high-danger job, often at a premium for any hazardous duty, and often for a short time before the disabling accident occurs – in which case the claimant gets the benefit of the higher wages (even if only briefly earned) in establishing his wage rate for the purposes of compensation.

Defining Wages.

The LHWCA defines the term “wages” as the money rate at which the service rendered by an employee is compensated by an employer under the contract of hiring in force at the time of the injury, including the reasonable value of any advantage which is received from the employer and included for purposes of any withholding of tax under subtitle c of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (relating to employment taxes). The term “wages” does not include fringe benefits, including (but not limited to) employer payments for or contributions to a retirement, pension, health and welfare, life insurance, training, social security or other employee or dependent benefit plan for the employee’s or dependent’s benefit, or any other employee’s dependent entitlement. 33 U.S.C. § 902(13). This definition does include housing and meals in the calculation of a claimant’s wages provided that they were not fringe benefits except in the Ninth Circuit, which holds that the the IRS criteria for deciding whether non-monetary compensation counts as wages. (For more on the definition of “wages” see Chapter 8 of my book, Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Law, 2011 edition.)

Calculating Wages.

In the case where the claimant worked substantially the same employment as the employment he was engaged in at the time of the injury, whether for the insured or another employer, for most of the year the Act provides:

. . . his average annual earnings shall consist of three hundred times the average daily wage or salary for a six-day worker and two hundred and sixty times the average daily wage or salary for a five-day worker, which he shall have earned in such employment during the days when so employed. 33 U.S.C. § 910(a).

Making this determination requires knowledge of whether the claimant was six- or five-day worker. Next, a wage statement should be obtained, with daily and weekly wages if available.
If the claimant did not work in the employment or a similar employment for “substantially the whole part of the year” then his wages will be based on a co-employee of “the same class working the whole of such immediately preceding year in such employment in the same or neighboring place” using the same 260- or 300-day multiples. 33 U.S.C. § 910 (b).

If neither of these metrics fit the fact situation (for example, a new hire working on a new project without a similar project in a neighboring locale) then the wages will be based on the previous earning of the claimant, the reasonable value of the services provided if the claimant was engaged in self-employment, and the wage experience of similar workers.

Wages in Traumatics versus Occupationals

The LHWCA calculates the claimant’s average weekly wage differently based on the type of injury sustained.

Traumatic Cases

In a trauma case the employee’s average weekly wage “at the time of the injury” is used to compute the claimant’s compensation. LeBlanc v. Cooper/T. Smith Stevedoring, Inc., 130 F.3d 157 (5th Cir. 1997). This is relatively easy to do. In a traumatic case where the injury is to the low back, neck, head, shoulder, or psyche, the AWW is very important as the unscheduled disability award will be based on the claimant’s pre- and post-injury earnings. In all cases, claimants will receive more benefits for higher wages, subject to the statutory maximums in place at the time of loss.

Occupationals

In an occupational case the time of injury, is when the claimant became aware of, “or in the exercise of reasonable diligence or by reason of medical advice should have been aware, of the relationship between the employment, the disease, and the death or disability.” Therefore, the wage earned by the claimant at that time (time of discovery) is used. This can be higher than during the period of actual exposure or employment.

Rates: a key the difference between Longshore and the Defense Base Act.

All Longshore compensation rates are based on a calculation of the claimant’s weekly wage. In every case, the actual benefit amount requires reference to the National Average Weekly Wage as a “maximum” on the possible benefits. For accident occurring now (Aug 2011) the maximum is $1,256.84 and the minimum is $314.21. Although the benefits available under the DBA are identical to the LHWCA, there is one key distinction: minimum compensation rates. While the minimum compensation rate under the LHWCA is 50% of NAWW, there is no minimum weekly compensation rate under the DBA.

New Case: Calculating wages under the Defense Base Act.

In a recent case (decided June 20, 2011) the claimant worked for a long time in foreign combat environments. He then took a “safer” job working on the United States Army Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. In 2008 he sustained a neck injury and was admittedly entitled to medical and lost time (indemnity) benefits. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) had to determine the average weekly wage. The ALJ determined that Claimant’s rate of pay at the time of his injury on the Atoll, a non-hostile environment, would form the basis of his wage calculation under 33 U.S.C. § 910. The claimant appealed, arguing he had earned more when working in more dangerous environments previously.

The Benefits Review Board (“BRB”) upheld the ALJ’s average weekly wage calculation, finding that because the Claimant’s pre-Atoll jobs were performed under different conditions, they would not form the basis for calculating his current wages.

Interestingly, this case is the exact opposite of the typical war zone cases, where a claimant is working in a high-danger job, often at a premium for any hazardous duty, and often for a short time before the disabling accident occurs – in which case the claimant gets the benefit of the higher wages (even if only briefly earned) in establishing his wage rate for the purposes of compensation.

Case: Luttrell v. Alutiiq Global Solutions, BRB No. 10-0555 (2011).

Greg Lois is the managing partner of LOIS LLC, a 21-attorney law firm dedicated to defending employers and carriers in New York and New Jersey workers' compensation claims. Greg is the author of a popular series of "Handbooks" on workers' compensation, and is the co-author of the 2016 & 2017 Lexis-Nexis New Jersey Workers' Compensation Practice Guide. Greg can be reached at 201-880-7213 or glois@lois-llc.com