In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island held that “benefits” received under the state’s “work-sharing” program [see R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-44-69] are not to be utilized in computing the average weekly wage (“AWW”) of an injured worker. Stressing that the usual meaning given to the word “wage” refers to payment for labor or services rendered [emphasis added], the Court said that work-sharing benefits are monies paid by the state for hours not worked [emphasis added]. Accordingly, they align with traditional unemployment compensation benefits, which are likewise paid to an individual by the state during times when he or she is not working, and which are not used to compute the AWW.
Background—Rhode Island’s Work-Sharing Program
Generally speaking, the program allows an employer to avoid layoffs by reducing the hours to be worked by a specific group of employees pursuant to a work-sharing plan. Such a work-sharing plan must be approved by the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. The state then pays the employees some portion of the difference between their actual income from the work-sharing employer and what they would have received had they been working on a full-time basis. The employer is required to continue paying health and retirement benefits as if the employee has remained a full-time employee. Additionally, the program requires the affected employee to remain available to work a normal, full-time work week for the work-sharing employer.
Unemployment Compensation Rules Generally Apply to Benefits
The Court observed that particularly relevant to the case was the fact that the statute provides that claims for work-sharing benefits shall be filed in the same manner as claims for unemployment compensation benefits and that “provisions applicable to unemployment compensation shall apply to work-sharing claimants to the extent that they are not inconsistent with the established work-sharing provisions” [§ 28-44-69(h)(6) and (7)].
Benefits Are Not Related to Work Performed
As noted above, the Court stressed that work-sharing benefits are monies paid for hours not worked. While the injured employee contended that the benefits should be equated with holiday pay or vacation pay—two types of income that are included in the AWW computation, the Court said the correlation was not a true one. While it is certainly true that an employee does not actually work when receiving vacation or holiday pay, both vacation and holiday pay were incidents of employment, said the Court. Vacation pay, for example, was a benefit the the employee acquired, over time, as a result of continued employment with the employer.
Finally, the Court stressed that its role was to read the law “as it is written.” It was not the Court’s function to be a super legislative body and rewrite statutes already passed by the General Assembly. Had that assembly intended to include work-sharing benefits in the AWW calculation, it would have been free to do so.