For work injuries after June 24, 2011, North Carolina Law encourages employers to provide “light duty” positions while the injured worker is recovering from a work injury. These can be made up positions – a job for which the employer couldn’t justify hiring someone to do. Sometimes the tasks are of some use to the company, other times the job is just “make work” that is of little value. In most cases, light duty positions need to be approved by the authorized treating physician and be consistent with the doctor’s work restrictions. Light duty can be a good thing for all concerned if the injured worker can transition back to productive employment with the company.
Sometimes an employer will make life very difficult for an injured worker after they return to work. Supervisors may be verbally abusive, saying things in a humiliating or demeaning manner, or constantly complain about the injured employee’s work. Employers may also require other employees to carry the extra load to compensate for the injured worker’s limitations, which can cause bad feelings. In an abusive situation, the injured worker may feel as if it is better to quit than to agonize over what the employer will say or do next. If the person quits or is fired, and workers compensation benefits do not start up immediately, there will be problems paying their bills. So, that person does the best they can to do what the employer asks so they can keep their job.
Why does this sometimes happen?
From the employer’s standpoint, having an injured worker on the payroll may be unprofitable for the company. The employer would prefer to pay someone who can be fully productive, rather than continue to pay an injured worker who can’t do much while they are recuperating from their injury. This is especially the case if the worker is easily replaced, it’s going to take a long time for the person to heal, or because of the seriousness of the injury it is unlikely that the injured worker will be able to do their usual job. That employer may prefer not having the injured person on the payroll. Or they may push the injured worker to work beyond their work restrictions. On the other hand, it is often difficult to replace an experienced employee, so the employer may treat a valued employee well and try to help get them back to work.
Workers compensation will probably have to begin paying weekly benefits if the employer is unwilling or unable to accommodate the work restrictions with a light duty job. The law encourages the employer and workers compensation to provide for light duty.
Sometimes an older employee may feel that it is easier to just take early retirement than to deal with the hassles you expect to face with the employer or workers compensation. Unfortunately, by quitting and taking early retirement through Social Security, that person may cut themselves off from weekly workers’ compensation benefits to which they may be entitled, and the person may ultimately receive less in retirement benefits when they reach full retirement age.
So, the bottom line for an injured worker is that throwing up your hands and quitting is probably not the right thing to do, because a worker who quits may lose or delay their right to ongoing benefits.
There are laws to protect injured workers’ jobs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to an injured employee so they can perform their own, or another job. If a person who has worked for at least 12 months for an employer who has 50 or more employees, generally FMLA requires a job to remain available and benefits paid for 12 weeks. Under the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA), if a person is injured on the job, the person cannot be fired or penalized for having filed a workers’ compensation claim. However, an employer may claim to have another reason to justify firing an injured worker. Once again, workers’ compensation may not start benefits.
Note that the rules change once an injured worker reaches maximum medical improvement and the person is released with permanent work restrictions. At that point, a “make work” or “light duty” job may no longer be acceptable.
You can see the complexity of the rules. If you are in a bad position, or you think things are heading that way, consult with an experienced workers compensation attorney. Preferably before you decide to quit or get fired.
The above information is for general purposes only and should not be construed to be legal advice. Each and every case is different and the facts of your case should be evaluated by an experienced workers’ compensation attorney.