Can You Be Fired for a Non-Work Related Injury? Employee Rights and Responsibilities

Your employer may have the right to fire you for a non-work related injury. Learn about your rights and employers’ obligations to injured workers.

No worker is immune from experiencing an injury on their personal time. In one year alone, there were over 39 million medical injuries that took place outside of work.¹

If you suffer a non-work related injury, medical expenses are one worry, the other is the threat of losing your job.

Most states say that employers can terminate an employee following a non-work injury. Worse, your employer may not have to give you the specific reasoning for your firing.

Employers do have some responsibilities to injured workers under the law, even when the worker’s injury had nothing to do with their job. Some employees may receive job protection if they’re contract workers or if their case is covered under certain federal laws.

If you are fired from a job because of a non-work related injury, you may be eligible to file for unemployment when you’ve recovered enough to work again. Of course, if you were injured by someone else’s negligence, you could pursue them for compensation for all your damages, including pain and suffering.

When You Can Be Fired for a Non-Work Related Injury

Most workers in the U.S. are considered at-will employees. In an at-will employment environment, employers are free to fire employees at any time and without justification, provided that the reason isn’t illegal under state or federal law.

Therefore, it’s legal for your employer to fire you for a non-workplace injury. Your employer can even fire you without giving a specific reason for the termination. However, your company can not fire you if the firing amounted to some form of discrimination or if it was done in retaliation for whistleblowing.

Keep in mind that at-will employers are not obligated to provide workers notice before terminating their job. They don’t even have to give warning before firing a worker.

All states also say that employers can fire you for a non-work related injury provided that the employer has a good cause. An example of a good cause is that you can no longer perform your job duties because of the injury, absenteeism, or your prolonged absence creates a hardship for the employer.

Exception for Employment Contracts

You’re not considered an at-will employee if you signed an employment contract when accepting your job. This means employers can’t fire workers for just any reason when an employment contract exists.

Here, companies can only fire you if the firing is consistent with the terms and conditions within your contract.

Let’s say you signed a contract in taking your job, and according to the contract, your employer can only fire you if you violated a state law or company policy. After a few weeks of starting your job, you’re hurt in a non-work-related auto accident. If you broke no law during the accident, and your absence doesn’t violate company policy, your employer can’t fire you because of your injuries.

If your employer fires you in violation of an employment contract, then you’d have a valid breach of contract claim against the employer.

Protections Under Federal Law

Depending on the facts surrounding your non-workplace injury, your employment status could receive some protection under federal law.

For example, you’d receive protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) if you suffered a disability in your non-work injury. Disabilities normally arise if an accident produced a long-term or permanent injury.

Under the ADA, it’s illegal for an employer to fire a worker solely due to a disability.

The ADA also says that if a worker returns to work with a disability, the employer must provide reasonable accommodations.

Reasonable accommodation may include:

  • Time off of work
  • Switching you from a full-time employee to a part-time employee
  • Making changes to your workspace or environment so you can better perform your job duties

Depending on the employer and the nature of your work, it may not be possible for your employer to make reasonable accommodations. For example, ADA accommodation rules may not apply to a business with less than 15 employees.

Employer Obligations After a Non-Workplace Injury

If an employee is injured outside of work, the victim’s employer still has legal responsibilities.

For example, an employer must allow an injured employee to take time off work to receive treatment and to recover from their medical condition. Workers can use accumulated sick leave or vacation days to cover their time off.

Employee FMLA Eligibility

When an employee has worked more than 12 months for a company that has more than 50 employees, the injured worker can request leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA grants eligible employees up to 12 weeks off of work over a 12-month period.

After an employee has requested FMLA, the employer is required to provide a statement of eligibility to the employee within five business days.

The employer also must provide a statement of the employee’s rights and obligations, including: 

  • Whether the worker must provide medical certification from a health care provider
  • The right to use paid leave and if they are required to use paid leave
  • The employee’s right to maintain health benefits and if they will have to make premium payments
  • The employee’s right to return to work at the end of FMLA leave

Return to Work Plans

Many larger employers have a formal return to work plan to help employees who suffered an on-the-job injury transition back into the workplace. In most cases, the company’s return to work policies don’t apply to employees who are hurt outside of work.

Further, the employer isn’t legally obligated to provide the employee with light-duty or alternate work duties if they’re recovering from non-work injuries and can’t do their regular job.

Keep in mind, though, that most employers will try to provide suitable duties if they can. Making such arrangements helps increase worker productivity, and it makes the injured employee more willing to return to the workplace.

Some companies may offer injured workers the ability to work from home while recovering from their injury. However, this isn’t legally required of them.

Responsibilities of the Injured Employee

You should seek medical treatment and appropriate health care immediately following your injury. This is important for the sake of your health, but it’s also important so that you can inform your employer of the medical necessity to be off work.

If you suffer from a severe injury, you may want to get a second opinion on your condition. This helps protect yourself if your employer is not willing to give you many days off of work.

Notify your employer as soon as possible to let them know you have to be absent from work. Ask your treating physician for a work slip that you can provide to your employer. The work slip will state that you are under medical care and must be absent from work for a specified period of time.

The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects personal health information, including your medical and mental health records. HIPAA ensures your right to privacy, limiting who can access and receive your medical information. Under this act, your employer can’t obtain or request your medical records.

Fired Employee’s Rights to Unemployment Benefits

In most situations, people can collect unemployment benefits if they’re fired from their jobs after suffering a non-work-related injury.

Workers are typically entitled to unemployment benefits if they are laid off. However, there are limitations on benefits if you were fired from your job for cause, meaning you were fired because of misconduct.

Examples of misconduct that preclude benefits:

  • Repeated inexcusable absences from work
  • Lying or committing acts of dishonesty
  • Deliberately violating company policies
  • Performing acts that jeopardize the safety of the workplace or other workers
  • Insubordination

A non-workplace injury is not a type of misconduct that would limit the collection of unemployment benefits, so long as you followed company policy for calling into work, and have a doctor’s note for your absence.

Eligibility for Workers’ Compensation Coverage

Unfortunately, employees that suffer a non-work-related injury can’t file a workers’ comp claim. Workers’ compensation is a workplace insurance program that pays for medical care and wage replacement after an on-the-job injury.

“On the job” means that you were injured or suffered a work-related illness as a direct result of your employment.

Determining if an Injury is Work-Related

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an injury or illness is work-related if an event or exposure at work caused or contributed to the injury or illness.

Further, an injury or illness is work-related if an event or exposure at work significantly aggravated a pre-existing injury or illness.

Example: Workplace Aggravation of a Pre-Existing Condition

Jill works during the weekdays on the sales floor of a nationally recognized clothing store.

On a weekend off of work, she sprains her back while working in her garden. She visits her primary care provider who recommends that she ice the area for a few days and then perform certain back stretches for two weeks. Jill follows her doctor’s guidance.

One month after her injury, Jill is on the job during the event of a busy sale. She is racing through a backroom to find a particular article of clothing. She trips over the wheel of a clothing rack and falls to the floor. Jill experiences sudden pain in her lower back.

It turns out that Jill’s fall inflamed her prior back sprain. Her doctor prescribed pain medication and referred her to physical therapy. She was out of work for three weeks.

Jill’s injury is work-related, even though she originally injured her back at home and it’s questionable if her slip and fall would’ve even led to an injury if she never had a prior injury. Jill is entitled to workers’ compensation coverage for aggravation of a pre-existing injury.

Filing a Personal Injury Claim

Injury victims can file a personal injury claim if a negligent party caused or contributed to their non-work related injury. For example, if you were rear-ended on your way home from the store, you can file a personal injury claim with the at-fault driver’s auto insurance company.

You or your attorney can demand compensation from the at-fault party for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and wages lost due to losing your job if you are fired after the injury.

If you’ve been injured and lost your job, protect your interests with good legal advice from an experienced personal injury attorney. An attorney can estimate the value of your injury claim, and ensure you receive applicable employment protection under state and federal law.

Most personal injury attorneys provide free consultation and work on a contingency fee basis. It costs nothing to find out what a good lawyer can do for you.

Dustin Reichard, Esq. is an experienced attorney with 20 years of work in the legal field. He’s admitted to the Illinois State Bar and the Washington State Bar. Dustin has worked in the areas of medical malpractice, wrongful death, product liability, slip and falls, and general liability. Dustin began his legal career as a JAG... Read More >>