Workers’ Compensation: What Your Employer Clients Need to Know About Light-Duty Work Assignments

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BY:
Todd Pollock

Senior Vice President

March 22, 2021

The objective of Workers’ Compensation (WC) insurance is to provide employees with financial support while they recover from a work-related illness or injury so that eventually, they can return to work when it is deemed medically appropriate. In some cases, if an employee’s primary treating physician (PTP) places light-duty work restrictions on the return-to-work authorization, and if the employer offers light-duty work assignments, a worker is able to get back to his or her job while still recovering.

However, because WC laws are different in every state, it can be difficult for employers to understand their obligations when it comes to light or modified return-to-work assignments. The following addresses some of the more common questions that your employer clients are likely to ask when it comes to navigating WC and light-duty or modified work assignments.

Who decides if an employee is physically able to perform light-duty work?
Only the PTP can determine if and when it is medically appropriate for an employee to return to his or her job in a light-duty capacity. Whether an employee can return to work on light duty also depends on the employer’s ability to find suitable work for the injured worker within his or her restrictions. If the employer is unable to meet the PTP’s restrictions, temporary disability benefits will continue until the PTP makes changes to the restrictions or authorizes the employee to return to regular duties.

Can an employee refuse light-duty work while still recovering?
If an employer offers light-duty work that meets the PTP’s medical restrictions, the employee must accept the work or risk forfeiting any disability payments for his or her lost wages. It’s worth noting that the employer must be able to accommodate all work restrictions by the PTP or the employee can reject the job offer, remain off work and continue to receive benefits. If the employee refuses light-duty work because he or she finds the modified work too difficult, then the PTP can adjust the existing work restrictions and the employer can approach the worker with a revised or new light-duty job offer.

Is an employer obligated to reinstate a worker who was placed on light-duty restrictions to his or her original job position?
An employee who accepts a temporary light-duty work assignment and whose PTP has lifted restrictions and cleared him or her for work, cannot be denied the option to return to his or her original position once deemed sufficiently recovered.

How does the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) impact light-duty work assignments?
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, an employer can offer a light-duty assignment as an alternative to an employee who may be seeking leave under the FMLA. Simply stated, the employee has the right under the FMLA to refuse all offers of light-duty work without loss of family leave rights and opt to take the family medical leave instead. However, an employee who has been medically cleared for light duty and refuses to return to work could be putting his or her WC benefits at risk.

Conclusion
More often than not, employers would prefer to keep employees working in some capacity while recovering from a work-related injury or illness. In fact, the ability for employers to offer light- or modified-duty return-to-work programs to their employees can help reduce lost workdays, productivity down time, and indemnity and medical costs. And, of course, there is the added benefit of providing valued employees with meaningful work.

At Worldwide Facilities, we believe it’s important for your business clients to understand how the WC process works and how they can develop new or improved light-duty return-to-work programs. For over 50 years, we’ve helped our retail broker partners address WC issues that can impact businesses and employees, empowering clients to create a solid risk mitigation strategy for a safer workplace.

For more information, please contact Todd Pollock at 508-625-3547 or tpollock@wwfi.com.

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