If you’ve been injured in a work-related accident, the road to recovery might not be totally smooth. While workers’ compensation helps cover some of your lost wages and your medical bills, taking the next step to return to work can sometimes be a difficult one regardless of the seriousness of your injury or illness.
An injured employee often faces personal questions like, “Can I do my old job?” “How easy will it be for me to fit back into a work routine?” “Will I still feel pain if I return to work?” and “Do I feel safe doing my old job after being injured while doing it?”
These are perfectly normal questions to ask. Going back to work after an injury, however, comes with many benefits. Financially, you’ll be better off. Workers’ compensation provides some financial benefits, but only up to two-thirds of your average weekly wage. There’s a tendency for injured workers to feel socially isolated as they recover too. Returning to work will allow you to reengage with your coworkers and friends, which can help in the healing process.
The purpose of this article is to help you understand the process of returning to work, whether you’re fully recovered or returning with light-duty restrictions from your doctor.
Common Work-Related Injuries
Even if you work in the most safety-conscious facility in Kansas or Missouri, there’s always a chance of sustaining a work-related injury or illness. Many jobs require employees to work off-site or to drive company cars, which can increase the possibility of working in an unsafe environment or having a car accident. Some of the most common kinds of work-related injuries include:
- Slip and fall accidents
- Falls from a higher level
- A slip or trip without a fall
- Back injuries and muscle strains or tears caused by overexertion
- Impact from a falling object
- Eye injuries
- Getting caught by or between equipment
- Crashes or collisions in a motorized vehicle
- Repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
- Cuts or lacerations
- Exposure to loud noises
- Inhalation of toxic fumes
- Walking into an object accidentally
According to statistics from the National Safety Council, a worker is injured in the United States every seven seconds. About 104 million production workdays are lost to work-related injuries every year. The top five occupations with the most missed workdays every year are service-related jobs (including police and firefighters), transportation and shipping, manufacturing and production, installation, maintenance and repair and construction.
Going Back to Work After an Injury
When an injured worker can return to work depends on several factors, the most important of which being the opinion of their physician. Once a physician clears an injured worker to return to work, the individual must do so. Many physicians will wait until an injured worker is at Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) before giving them permission to return to work — with light-duty restrictions if necessary. MMI means that your doctor believes you’ve recovered as much as you’re going to from your injury.
When a worker returns to their place of employment with light-duty (or medical) restrictions, the worker may have questions about how their employer will deal with these restrictions. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions.
1. Does My Employer Need to Offer Light-Duty Work?
Employers are not obligated to offer light-duty work to injured employees, but it makes sense for most employers to do so. Most light-duty jobs cost little to nothing for an employer to implement. There are other benefits to the employer as well as to the employee. For instance, lower turnover is good for any business. Employers save costs because it’s often less expensive to find a light-duty job for an injured employee than it is to continue to pay workers’ compensation. The employer also retains the skills of the employee.
2. Can I Refuse an Offer of a Job With Light-Duty Restrictions?
It’s possible for an injured worker to refuse this kind of offer if the worker’s doctor has not cleared them to return to work with light-duty work restrictions. If the physician has cleared the injured worker to return to work with light-duty work restrictions, and the worker refuses to return, it’s possible and likely that the worker will lose their right to collect workers’ compensation benefits.
It’s crucial for a job offer with light-duty work restrictions to fit the parameters of your doctor’s instructions. For instance, if your physician feels that you should not be lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds until you’re fully recovered, and the light-duty work restriction job would have you lifting 30 or 40 pounds, you can refuse it. A better idea than refusal, however, would be to go to your employer and explain that you want to return to work but that you need to follow your doctor’s instructions.
3. Does the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Impact Any Offer of a Job With Light-Duty Restrictions?
Yes, but it does so in a way that’s different from the way workers’ compensation does. The FMLA says that a worker can refuse an offer of a light-duty job and not lose family leave rights. As we noted above, however, if your doctor has cleared you to return to work with medical restrictions and you refuse a light-duty job, you may lose your right to collect workers’ compensation benefits.
4. Will I Get Paid Less Than I Did Before I Was Injured If I Return to Work With a Light-Duty Job?
The answer to this question depends to some degree on your employer and your job status. If you’re a salaried employee, it’s likely that you’ll be paid your usual salary when you return. If you’re an at-will employee, however, that may not be the case. An employer can offer you a light-duty job at a lower pay scale. Workers’ compensation, however, can help make up the difference. It can provide you with two-thirds of the difference between your former salary and your new salary for as long as you work at that light-duty job.
5. Once the Light-Duty Work Restrictions Are Lifted by My Doctor, Can I Return to My Original Job?
Employers are not allowed to penalize injured workers for using the workers’ compensation system, which includes denying a worker the opportunity to return to their original job once they have fully recovered. Injured workers, however, are not guaranteed that their original job will still exist. If an injured worker’s job is an important one, an employer can fill it before the injured worker is ready to return.
Injured workers should communicate as much as possible with their employers during the recovery period. If your employer knows you’re highly interested in returning to full-time work, it can increase the possibility that they’ll do what they can to keep your original position open until you’re able to return full-time.
6. Can I Be Fired After I Suffer a Work-Related Injury?
Unfortunately, yes. If you work in a job without a contract, your employer may not be able to find a light-duty work job or be able to hold onto your position until you recover. Employers cannot fire you, however, because you requested workers’ compensation benefits. In fact, even if your employer does fire you, you’ll continue to receive your workers’ compensation benefits.
This situation is very tricky since employers and their insurance carriers can often invent reasons to fire injured employees and then try to talk them into accepting settlements for a reduced amount of money. If you think that’s happening to you, you should contact a workers’ compensation lawyer as soon as possible.
Benefits of Returning to Work
Once you’ve made the decision to return to work and your physician has cleared you to return with or without light-duty restrictions, you’ll find that there are many benefits waiting for you. We briefly touched on these benefits above, but they’re worth repeating in more depth:
- A more secure financial future: This benefit is one of the most positive ones. Workers’ compensation is a great help when you’re recovering from your injury because it assists you in covering your family’s financial needs and your medical bills. But it only covers part of those financial costs. Once you’ve returned to work, you’ll either earn your previous pay or receive a reduced amount but have workers’ compensation to make up a significant part of the difference. It’s also difficult to earn promotions when you’re off the job.
- An active lifestyle: Many physicians will tell you that after you’ve recovered from a work-related injury, the best way to complete a full recovery is not to sit at home but to be more active. Going back to work, even with light-duty restrictions, will help you achieve a more active lifestyle.
- A confidence boost: When you come right down to it, the truth is that most injured workers can’t wait to get back on the job. They don’t enjoy sitting around doing nothing, even if they know it’s necessary. Returning to the job gives them a boost in confidence. You’re like a baseball or football player who’s been injured and longs to return to play — you always feel more confident using your skills and abilities than you do when an injury has sidelined you.
- Social connections: Your coworkers are often what make your job enjoyable. When you’re injured, you need to put those social connections aside as you try to recover. Such a recovery can often be long and lonely, including difficult sessions of physical therapy or trips to a doctor’s office. When you return to work, you have a chance to renew those social connections. They often play as important a role in overall recovery as any treatments or prescriptions.
How to Make the Transition From Injury to Work Easier
While the benefits of returning to work are positive, we don’t want to dismiss the difficulties workers face when they return to the job. One of the ways this transition can be made easier is if your employer has a Return to Work (RTW) program, or as it is also known, a work rehabilitation program. The goal of these programs is to return an injured worker to the workplace as soon as it’s medically advisable.
If your employer doesn’t have an RTW or a work rehabilitation program, you and your workers’ compensation rep should encourage them to establish one. An RTW plan enables employers to retain experienced workers, reduce overall turnover, improve productivity, ensure better relationships with their entire workforce, help workers reenter the workforce sooner and — perhaps most important for the employer — reduce workers’ compensation costs.
If your employer doesn’t have an RTW program but they’re interested in establishing one, they can find examples at the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODP), at the federal Department of Labor or at state agencies.
One of the best ways to ensure that these kinds of programs succeed is to encourage communication between an injured worker and an employer. If you’ve been injured in a work-related accident, it’s to your benefit to keep in constant touch with your employer.
After you’ve been away for a while, an employer might forget just how important you are. Keep them up-to-date on your recovery and when you might be able to return to work. Doing so will help keep that connection in place and give your employer time to work with you to find the right position if you have light-duty restrictions.
Know Your Workplace Injury Procedures
Regardless of whether your employer has a work rehabilitation program in place, you need to know the procedures at your workplace that deal with an injured worker returning to the job. Keep the following factors in mind.
1. When You Need to Return to Work
Every time you visit your doctor’s office, they’ll probably make notes about your work-related injury. Make sure you ask them about your progress. While some doctors will wait until you’ve reached MMI, others may feel that you’re ready to return to work before this point, especially if you’re seeing a physician who was selected by your employer’s insurance company. Follow these steps:
- Make sure you ask your physician after every visit if they believe you are ready to return to work. Read all the paperwork you’re given after a visit. You may discover that you’ve been released to return to work, even if the physician did not notify you of it during your visit.
- If your doctor has cleared you to return to work in any capacity, let your employer know immediately. You also need to let your workers’ comp representative know. More importantly, you should return on the release date designated by your physician, regardless of when that day is.
- Do not miss the first day. Even if you don’t feel that you’re ready to return to work, if the physician has cleared you, it’s important that you go to retain your workers’ compensation benefits. Your next step is to contact a workers’ compensation attorney who can help clarify your work situation.
2. Work Restrictions
If you do receive light-duty restrictions, make sure you give a copy of these restrictions to both your employer and your workers’ compensation rep. It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of those restrictions with you at all times on the job. While you may want to push yourself when you get back to work, don’t work outside those restrictions given to you by your physician, or you may end up re-injuring yourself
3. Your Employer’s Return to Work Policy
If your employer already has a RTW or work rehabilitation program, it will probably be outlined in an employee handbook. If they don’t have an employee handbook, you should speak with them or the company’s HR department about returning to work. It’s important for you to create a useful work plan with your employer, as doing so will help assure them that you still want to be a productive employee.
Contact The Law Office Of William L. Phalen
As an injured worker, you need to understand the procedures for returning to work after a work-related injury. If you’re confused about these procedures or think your employer or their insurance company is applying them unfairly — or that an insurance company physician has cleared you to return to work before you’re ready — contact the experienced workers’ comp lawyers at Phalen Law Firm.
Workers’ compensation issues are our specialty, and our knowledgeable team of attorneys will work hard to ensure that your return to work is as smooth as possible. If you’re still eligible to receive any workers’ compensation benefits, we’ll make sure you receive them.