Can an Injured Worker Be Forced to Return to Work? Basic Timeline and Policies

You can be forced to return to work if the doctor says you’re ready. See typical back-to-work policies after a workplace injury.

The return to work timeline begins the day you are injured on the job. Studies show the longer injured workers are away from their jobs, the harder it is to return to their previous duties.

Once your immediate medical needs are met, your physician, worker’s comp, and your employer will all track the time until you can get back on the job.

Ready or not, when the time comes that 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 program 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.

Who Decides When You Should Return to Work?

Your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance company will not pay wage replacement disability benefits a day longer than they have to. While the insurer wants to see you back at work right away, only a doctor has the authority to decide when you’ve recovered enough to go back to work.

The Treating Physician Determines Work Status

Your treating physician’s evaluation will result in a workers’ comp disability rating that determines your ability and the timing of your return to work.

Definition of Workers’ Comp Disability Categories

  • Temporary Total Disability completely prevents you from performing any work 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.

Every time you see your doctor about your work-related injury, there will be a note 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 work” or “seated only” work.

Learn more about what to do after a work injury here.

Typical Worker’s Comp Return to Work Timeline

Your workers’ compensation experience begins when you’re injured on the job or diagnosed with an occupational illness. The length of time and exact order will vary. Every injured worker is a different person with unique factors that influence their return to work timeline.

Most work injuries follow a similar sequence of events:

  1. Workplace Injury Occurs – May be a traumatic accident or occupational illness or injury
  2. Initial Diagnosis and Treatment – Often emergency injury care, may involve imaging studies and other tests
  3. Notify Employer of Injury  – As soon as possible after the injury, tell the employer when, where, and how you were injured
  4. File Worker’s Comp Claim – Paperwork must be submitted within the state-mandated claim filing deadline or the claim may be rejected
  5. Follow-up Medical Care and Treatment – Includes a medical evaluation of the worker’s ability to return to work. Workers categorized with a Temporary or Permanent Total Disability will not be released to return to work.
  6. Medical Release to Work with Restrictions – Worker is partially impaired but is released to work in a “light duty” or “seated only” capacity. Or, the worker is released to work for limited hours.
  7. Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) – The treating physician has determined the worker will not improve with further treatment.

When a worker reaches MMI, depending on the worker’s level of recovery, the doctor may fully release the worker to return to work with no restrictions. If the worker’s injury left them with a permanent partial disability, the doctor will determine an impairment rating for the injured body part or function.

Watch Out for Your Return to Work Date

Pay attention to your doctor’s orders. Carefully read any paperwork you’re 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.

Beware of Insurance Company Tactics to Get You Back to Work Faster

The workers’ compensation insurance company has the right to review all medical records related to your workplace injury.

The insurer has on-staff medical case managers (usually nurses) who will pick through your records. Case managers are notorious for contacting the treating physician, to question or challenge your need for treatment or your ability to go to work.

While your treating physician has the authority to keep you off work, they can be subject to a lot of pressure from the insurance company. If the insurer disagrees with your doctor, they can also send you for an Independent Medical Exam (IME) with a hand-picked workers’ compensation doctor to get a second opinion about your work and disability status.

Resist Pressure from Your Employer to Come Back Too Soon

Your employer has no authority to force you back to work before you are medically released by your physician. An employer who harasses or threatens you after a work injury may very well be in violation of your state’s workers’ compensation law.

It’s understandable that you might also feel pressured out of a sense of duty or guilt if you work for a terrific company, especially a smaller company that may be left in the lurch while you are medically unable to work.

Refusing to Return to Work Can Cost You

You may not feel ready to return to work at all, or you may not want to do the light-duty job offered by your employer. If you’ve been released to return to work, with or without restrictions, you have very limited options.

If you refuse to return to work, the insurance company will likely terminate your worker’s compensation benefits and close your claim.

Failing to report to work on the release date specified by your physician can also cost you your job. Not showing up to work can be taken as job abandonment in most states. If you are fired for “cause” like refusing to come to work, you won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits either.

You have the right to seek another medical opinion about your ability to return to work, although you might have to pay the doctor out of your own pocket. If you have conflicting opinions, such as your physician disagreeing with the worker’s compensation doctor, you might be able to ask for a hearing with your state’s workers’ compensation board.

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’ compensation lawyer.

Don’t refuse to accept multiple independent doctors’ assessments of your injury. If you find yourself doctor shopping for a favorable medical opinion, it will be difficult to win your case. See this case example of a worker disputing his return to work order.

Can You Be Fired After a Work Injury?

It is illegal to fire an injured worker in retaliation for reporting a work injury or filing a workers’ compensation claim, but there are legitimate reasons for employers to fire an injured employee.

You can be fired for cause if the doctor says you’re well enough to perform limited job duties and you refuse to return to work.

Your employer also has a legal right to fire you after a work injury, if your absence creates a hardship for the company. Fortunately for the injured worker, if their job is lost because the company has an urgent need to fill the position, the worker should still receive worker’s comp benefits until they are medically cleared to return to work.

Likewise, a worker who is without a job after recovering from a work injury may be eligible to draw unemployment insurance benefits while looking for a different job, so long as they were not fired for “cause.”

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 their 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.

Your Employer’s Return to Work Policy

A return to work policy is intended to provide a transitional return to work for employees recovering from workplace injuries. If you are out of work for personal injuries that are not work-related, you may not qualify for your employer’s back to work program.

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 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.

Workers returning to the workplace with physical disabilities may be entitled to consideration under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled persons.

Don’t Work Outside Your Restrictions

Make sure your employer and workers’ comp claim 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 job or employer, don’t perform activities or work longer hours than those described in your restrictions.

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.

Dealing with Poor Return To Work Plans

Your employer might not have a light-duty or seated-only job readily available. If there is no work available that meets your medical restrictions, worker’s comp has to continue paying your full wage replacement benefit until you’re fully recovered or determined to have a disability.

Most workers’ comp insurance carriers aren’t willing to pay you to stay home if they can help it. Your employer will be pressured to find something for you to do, even if it means sitting in a windowless room for eight hours a day reading work manuals. You may also be required to travel to a different location, or report for a different work shift.

Workers comp doesn’t care if the “work” is boring, unpleasant, or inconvenient. If you get frustrated enough to refuse, they’ll terminate your benefits.

If you feel your employer or workers’ comp is deliberately making work difficult, it’s time to get good legal advice about your situation.

When You Need a Workers’ Compensation 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, the workers’ compensation return to work plan kicks in.

Worker’s comp may 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 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.

Don’t let a greedy insurance company manipulate you into forfeiting your worker’s compensation benefits. Most workers’ compensation attorneys offer free consultations for injured workers, and most states limit the amount of legal fees you would have to pay.

Returning to Work After Injury Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>