Policies for Returning to Work After an On-the-Job Injury

Studies show the longer workers are away from their jobs, the harder it is to return to their previous duties. Although your doctor may say you’ve reached a level of maximum medical improvement (MMI), you may not feel you’re ready to return to your previous full-time job.

Once you reach MMI, your treating physician will complete a Return to Work form. The form notifies your employer and the workers’ compensation representative that you’re cleared to return to work. Depending upon your health status, your physician may order lighter work duties while your injuries continue to heal. Your employer should implement the company’s return to work policy according to your physician’s orders.

An effective return to work policy includes:

  • Confirmation that your employer understands the nature and extent of your injuries, and your present physical limitations
  • A plan to provide reasonable accommodations to permit you to transition back to work safely, free from unnecessary pain and discomfort
  • Open communication between you, your employer, and your treating physician, to expedite your return to your former work duties as soon as medically advisable

A return to work policy is intended to provide a transition period for you to return to work and eventually become fully productive at your former job. If you are partially disabled from your on-the-job injury, it’s especially important to establish a work plan with your employer as soon as possible. You want to assure your employer you can still be a productive employee and not a financial burden.

The workers’ comp representative and your physician may work closely with your employer. They can help find a position to accommodate your restricted duty, and determine whether that duty is temporary or permanent.

If your treating physician clears you to return to work with restrictions that place you in a lower paying position, workers’ comp may reimburse you for a portion of the difference in pay (until you can return to your previous job). This benefit is not available if you refuse to accept the restrictive work duties or new position offered as part of the return to work policy.

Be sure to notify the workers’ comp representative as soon as you’re cleared by your physician to return to work. If you continue to receive workers’ comp payments after being cleared, you may have to repay the insurance company for those overpayments.

Example: Successfully returning to work after injury

Jake broke his tibia and fibula while working as a cargo handler for a national airline. His injury was debilitating, requiring extensive medical and chiropractic treatment. Several months later, Jake’s physician determined he’d reached a level of maximum medical improvement (MMI), and said he could return to work under restricted duty. His physician completed a Release to Return to Work form (example), which Jake gave to his employer.

Jake’s employer had a plan in place for his return. It required Jake’s supervisor to confer with his physician so he could understand Jake’s present condition, including any limitations or restrictions. The plan also required Jake’s supervisor to do everything possible to reassign Jake to work suited to his physical limitations.

Through conversations with the physician and Jake, his supervisor determined that Jake would probably be able to return to his full-time duties within a month or so. In the meantime, Jake would continue his physical therapy. Following company policy, Jake’s supervisor offered him an available position in the lost luggage department. Jake’s duties would keep him off his feet while he continued to recover; however, the job paid less than his former position.

Jake accepted the position and reported for work. He told his workers’ comp representative about his new position and requested benefits to pay him the difference in wages. Jake also requested payment for his continuing therapy. He received both.

Jake worked in the lost baggage department for the next month. After a subsequent conference with Jake and his physician, his supervisor learned Jake had completed his physical therapy and was ready to return to his former position. Jake reported to his old job the next day. He then notified workers’ comp that he was back full-time and at full wages.

Can you be fired after an injury?

Sometimes employers can’t provide returning employees with their previous job or pay. Absent a contract of employment, injured employees whose previous job position isn’t available may have no alternative but to seek employment elsewhere.

In most cases, your employer is not bound to continue your employment if you can’t return to your former job duties, or there isn’t another suitable job available. If your employer doesn’t have another position for you while you continue to heal, workers’ comp may provide you with vocational rehabilitation. They will retrain you for a job which accommodates your physical condition.

Most large employers have written employee manuals setting out the guidelines for post-injury return to work procedures, but employee manuals are not required for all companies.

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