What Workers Need to Know Before Returning to Work After an Injury

Here’s what you need to know about work restrictions, wage compensation, and more if you’re forced to return 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 suitable level of medical improvement, you may not feel you’re ready to return to your previous full-time job.

Ready or not, if your doctor says you can work, you’ll have to show up or risk losing your workers’ compensation benefits.

Your employer may have a terrific return to work policy to help you transition back to your job, or they might have to figure it out as they go along. Either way, you  need to know how to look out for your own best interests.

When Do You Have to Return to Work?

Every time you see your doctor about your work-related injury, there will probably be a notation made in the chart about your work status. The doctor will decide if you should be completely off work, able to work with some restrictions, or released to go back to your pre-injury duties without restrictions.

Some workers are kept off work until they’ve reached maximum medical improvement (MMI), meaning they’ve healed from their work injury as much as they’re going to.

However, you can be released to return to work before reaching MMI. Even if you’re still being treated for your injury or taking physical therapy, you could be released for a modified work schedule, “light-duty” or “seated only” work.

Your treating physician’s evaluation will result in a workers’ comp disability rating that will determine your ability and the timing of your return to work. The insurance company can also send you for an Independant Medical Exam (IME) for another opinion about your work and disability status.

Definition of Workers’ Comp Disability Categories

  • Temporary Total Disability completely prevents you from working for a limited amount of time.
  • Temporary Partial Disability prevents you from doing some, but not all, of your job duties for a limited amount of time.
  • Permanent Total Disability prevents you from ever returning to work, whether for your current employer or another employer.
  • Permanent Partial Disability is a permanent injury that partially impairs your ability to work.

Watch Out for Your Return to Work Date

Pay attention to your doctor’s orders. Carefully read any paperwork you are given after a medical visit, especially if your doctor is part of the workers’ comp insurance company’s network. You may find that you’ve been released to return to work on paper, even if the doctor didn’t tell you to your face.

If you are released to return to work in any capacity, you must notify your employer immediately. Most importantly, you must report to work on your release date, even if it’s the day after your last medical appointment.

Don’t Work Outside Your Restrictions

Make sure your employer and workers’ comp representative have copies of your work restrictions. It wouldn’t hurt to keep an extra copy with you when you return to work.

While it’s normal to want to push yourself when you like your employer, don’t perform activities or work longer hours than those described in your work restrictions.

The same goes for situations where the employer is less than accommodating. If you quit your job or refuse an assignment that is within your work restrictions, you could lose your benefits and any potential disability settlement from workers’ comp.

If you disagree with the doctor’s rating of your ability to function at work, or you’re being treated badly because of your work restrictions, contact an experienced workers’ comp attorney.

Your Employer’s Return to Work Policy

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’re 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.

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

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. This benefit is not available if you refuse to accept the restrictive work duties or new position.

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 an injury

Jake broke two bones in his lower leg from a slip-and-fall accident while working as a cargo handler for a national airline. His injury was debilitating, requiring extensive medical treatment and rehab. Several months later, Jake’s physician determined he could return to work under restricted duty.

Jake’s employer had a plan in place for his return. It required Jake’s supervisor to consult with his physician so that 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.

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  follow-up 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 a Work Injury?

The short answer is yes, you can be fired after a work injury.

Sometimes employers can’t provide returning employees with their previous job or pay. Unless there is an employment contract, an injured employee whose previous job position isn’t available may have no choice but to find another job.

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.

Your employer’s ability to assist you is limited to the availability of a job with the company that meets your medical restrictions. In most cases, your employer is not required to continue your employment if you can’t return to your former job duties or if there isn’t another suitable job available.

If you are unable to return to your old job, you’re at the mercy of the workers’ comp insurance company, unless you have an attorney. The insurance company may offer you a small settlement to resolve your claim. If you refuse, they can make your life miserable.

When You Need a Workers’ Comp Attorney

You may have been injured on the job while working for a great company, with bosses who care about you. But once you filed your claim for workers’ compensation, everything changed.

If your employer doesn’t have another position for you, workers’ comp may be able to provide you with vocational rehabilitation. What that often means is they will require you to meet with a vocational counselor who will give you a weekly list of job interviews, that you are required to attend or lose your benefits.

They don’t care about your age, education, transportation, daycare situation, or former wages. They don’t care that you don’t want to work the midnight shift in a bad part of town as a cashier for minimum wage. Hey, it’s a “seated only” job. If you refuse, you lose.

Angry, disgusted, or humiliated by the insurance company’s tactics? It costs you nothing to find out what an experienced attorney can do for you.

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