After suffering an on-the-job injury, a worker may not be able to perform all the required tasks and essential functions of their job. In Iowa, workers’ compensation laws provide employees who are hurt at work with compensation for their lost wages during their recovery while they are unable to do their job. Sometimes, a worker will be completely unable to return to the workplace. Many times, however, an employee will be able to do some, but not all, of the functions of their job. In this situation, the employer and its workers’ compensation insurance carrier have two options:
- Pay the employee “healing period” benefits while he or she is completely off work, or
- Provide “light duty” work.
Does my employer have to find light duty work for me if I’m injured on the job?
Your employer is incentivized by its workers’ compensation carrier to provide light duty work to injured employees because this reduces the benefits the carrier must pay while an injured employee is recovering. If your employer offers light duty work, it must be compatible with your doctor’s instructions concerning any limitations or restrictions (including reduced work hours, restricted duties, etc.). For many workers, light duty work entails many of the same job duties as their regular job, but without certain strenuous tasks (like heavy lifting), with some assistance (like a stool), or with reduced hours or more frequent breaks. For other workers, light duty work can involve entirely different tasks.
For example, an airline gate agent slips and falls at work, injuring her lower back. She returns to light duty work, which consists mostly of all of her usual responsibilities with a few exceptions: she uses a stool when necessary rather than standing for an entire shift at the gate computer; she takes a break every hour for 5 minutes to perform stretching exercises; and she does not operate the gangway because it can involve strenuous physical activity.
On the other hand, an airline pilot who injures her lower back may be unable to sit for long periods of time, impairing her ability to safely fly a plane. Her company might offer light duty work that involves equipment inventory, scheduling, supervisory duties, or other administrative work that is outside her normal job duties.
What if the light duty work pays less than my regular job?
Sometimes an injured worker on light duty ends up receiving less pay than they received for their regular job, whether because the light duty work option pays less per hour, doesn’t offer incentive benefits, or involves less overall hourly work. In this case, a worker is entitled to receive “temporary partial disability benefits” from the workers’ compensation carrier to make up some of the difference (generally, about 2/3 of the amount).
Do I have to accept light duty work?
Iowa workers’ compensation law requires that you accept light duty work offered by your employer if it is suitable. You are not permitted to reject the proffered work and opt to receive healing period benefits instead (although your employer can choose not to offer light duty work, enabling you to receive those benefits while you recover).
It’s important to note that the proposed light duty work must conform to the work restrictions implemented by your authorized medical care provider. If it isn’t, you should tell your employer how the proposed work is noncompliant and explain that you are not going to perform work outside your restrictions. If an employer offers light duty work that would be suitable to your physical restrictions but is otherwise objectionable or problematic, such as being a long distance from your home, at a different location, or on an undesirable shift, you may be able to make a case that the offered work is not actually “suitable.” You may need to contact an attorney if you cannot come to an agreement with your employer about suitable light duty work.
Does my employer have to continue to allow me light duty work after I reach MMI?
At some point, your medical provider will determine that your recovery period is over and you have reached “maximum medical improvement,” or MMI. Sometimes, you still may not be able to perform all the tasks your job requires. Your employer does not have to create or provide permanent light duty work for an employee who is injured on the job and can no longer perform the essential functions of his position after reaching MMI. However, if you would be able to perform the essential functions of your job with reasonable accommodations, laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may help you request and negotiate ways to enable you to continue your employment despite some restrictions. You should contact an attorney to discuss the facts of your case and evaluate your options.
When should I contact a workers’ compensation attorney?
Employers are not permitted to threaten, harass, or fire an employee for filing workers’ compensation benefits or returning to reasonable light duty work. Although it may be an inconvenience when an employee returns with restrictions, it remains illegal to discriminate or retaliate against a worker who has made a claim through the workers’ comp system and is suffering from a temporary disability. If you are having trouble navigating the workers’ compensation system or negotiating reasonable light duty work arrangements with your employer, contact an attorney.
The Platt Law Firm has the experience and skill you need to be your advocate and partner through the recovery process. Contact us today.