Light duty following a work injury sounds like a win/win situation. The employer pays less or no disability payments, and the employee can return to work without exceeding temporary medical restrictions.
But some employers assume the worst of their injured employees:
- They need to get off the couch and back to work!
- If they get used to staying home and watching TV all day, they will never return to work!
- The worker is milking an injury to stay off work.
- It’s not good for them to sit around and worry about their injury.
- Better for them to get back to any kind of work, not matter what it is!
This gung-ho attitude can result in light duty that takes an employee away from their recovery and into some nightmarish situations. It is amazing how often the employee loses when it comes to light duty assignments.
Truck drivers seem to have it especially bad. Often they are offered light duty assignments in terminals far away from their home and medical providers. They are expected to travel to distant locations for the workweek and spend off duty hours in Interstate motels – not usually a recipe for rest and recovery.
Other employers will invent make-work light duty. We had one injured worker who was told to sit and screw nuts on to bolts – all day, every day. The next week he was told to unscrew the nuts from the bolts – all day, every day. This work was clearly designed to drive the employee nuts, – and to refuse the light duty, which could result in a denial of benefits, or to act out in a way that would lead to termination.
Another tactic is to loan recovering employees out to charitable organizations. Whole industries have popped up to match injured workers out to Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and other nonprofits. The employer pays a fee to the matching organization, and gets a “good citizen” award, or even tax credit from the nonprofit for the loan of the employee.
This work could be substantially different from tasks the employee is used to performing, and some chores, such a bell ringing during a cold Nebraska winter, could feel more like a punishment than a light duty job assignment.
Fortunately, recent case law is putting the kibosh on this practice. A recent award in the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court (Delezene vs. Trillium Staffing Solutions and Plastilite Corp.) found that the plaintiff was justified in not accepting a charitable sympathy job at the Open Door Mission, which the court found was not “suitable and reasonable employment.”
While some light duty assignments can be a good faith offer to accommodate an injured employee, some are ill disguised attempts to punish an employee for being injured. When that is the case, it is important to have an experienced workers’ compensation attorney in your corner.