Can returning to work at light duty hurt your worker's compensation case? Well, it depends. After suffering a serious accident at work, you might find yourself temporarily unable to work as you recover from your injury. This is called a temporary total disability, and during this time, you should receive ongoing payments from the worker's compensation insurance carrier for your lost time.
But then, out of the blue, your employer contacts you and says, Hey, we received a medical report from a doctor. We're clearing you to return to work. That's great news. We're going to accept the accommodations he has listed so you can come back at light duty. Should you take their word for it and go back to work? And what will it mean for your worker's compensation case? There are actually some red flags here that we need to discuss before we do, let's clarify exactly what we mean by light duty.
When most people think of light duty, they imagine work that's less physically demanding than their original job. Some common examples include things like doing paperwork, taking inventory, cleaning the office, or answering the telephone. But in the world of worker's compensation, light duty has nothing to do with the physical demands of the job. It's simply when you are unable to earn your normal salary because of your injury.
So, for instance, if you have two broken arms and two broken legs and a broken spine and you look like one of those guys from the movies with a full body cast and your boss gives you a headset to answer the phone by pushing a button with your tongue and you're getting paid the same amount that you were earning before the accident. Then you are not working a light duty.
In the eyes of worker's compensation, once you are back to work and making the same amount of money as before, you are no longer considered light duty and are therefore no longer eligible for lost wage benefits. You will still continue to receive medical benefits and qualify for permanent disability benefits. So once you're making as much money as before, you're considered to be working at full duty.
However, if you go back to work for a less physically demanding job and are getting paid less money than before, then you are considered to be working at light duty and are therefore still eligible for reduced lost wage benefits. This is called a reduced earnings claim and it allows you to get two thirds of the difference between your pre-accident average weekly wage and your current average weekly wage. This is subject to the statutory maximums.
So, for example, if you were a construction worker who was making an average weekly wage of $1,000 before you got hurt, and then you take a light duty position that pays an average weekly wage of $600, you subtract your reduced earnings of $600 from your original average weekly wage of $1,000 to get $400. You then multiply $400 by two thirds to get $267 in weekly lost wage benefits.
You can continue to collect these benefits until you return to full duty or until you reach maximum medical improvement or MMI and are awarded permanent disability benefits. So what we really mean when we say light duty is actually reduced earnings, you're getting paid reduced earnings due to your injury and are receiving reduced wage benefits to make up for the difference.
Speaking of benefits, if you've been injured in New York State and you want to make sure you get all of the benefits that you're entitled to, I'm currently accepting new clients. My name is Rex Zachofsky and I became a New York State worker's compensation lawyer 17 years ago after getting injured on the job. If you're looking for a lawyer to help you with your claim, please give me a call at 212-406-8989 to schedule a free consultation.
It happens on a fairly common basis, but I wouldn't say that it's the majority of workers compensation cases here in New York. Most employers, especially those with more strenuous jobs, such as nurses, construction workers and delivery drivers, require their employees to be at full duty before returning to work.
Some employers see it as a liability if you return to work while you're still injured. It's also not uncommon for your employer to fill your job while you're away, in which case they're unlikely to offer you light duty. Unfortunately, the law does not require your employer to hold your job, so more often than not, they'll fill your position while you're away.
If you do get offered light duty, check with your own treating doctor to find out what your physical restrictions are before accepting it. Examples of common physical restrictions include no squatting or kneeling, no lifting more than a certain weight, like five, ten or 20lbs. No prolonged sitting, standing or walking. No work that requires both hands or lifting above shoulder level and no work that requires more than four or 6 hours per day.
If your employer tries to get you to do a job that would violate your particular restrictions, you can refuse light duty and continue receiving lost wage benefits. On the other hand, if your employer offers you light duty work that does accommodate the restrictions offered by your doctor and you refuse it, then they can request a hearing and have a judge suspend your worker's compensation benefits.
It's not unheard of for employers to offer a light duty position in the hopes that you'll refuse it, and then they can just stop paying your benefits. So do your best to accept any legitimate offer that accommodates your restrictions.
Now that we understand what light duty is, let's circle back to our original question. Can light duty hurt your worker's compensation case? In most circumstances, the answer is no. Light duty work is simply a step on your way back to full duty work, which is what every injured worker's goal should be.
You don't want to be out on comp for the rest of your life. Talk to anybody who unfortunately is out on comp for the rest of their life with a horrible injury, and it's not where they want to be. And unless you hate your employer, there is no better place to resume working. So do your best to accept the light duty position if they offer it.
And how about the scenario at the start of our video? What should you do if your employer suddenly contacts you out of the blue with an offer for light duty work, acting as though it was your doctor who authorized it? This is actually a sneaky tactic to try to make it look like you're refusing light duty work that accommodates your restrictions.
Your employer will send you a letter welcoming you back to work and conveniently omit the fact that it wasn't your treating doctor who authorized light duty. It was the IME doctor. But when it comes to light duty, the only doctor you need to listen to is your own treating doctor. And if they say you're not ready to go back to work, then you can safely refuse the offer without jeopardizing your benefits. Now, on the other hand, if they say you are ready for light duty work and take the offering, get back out there.
And if you want to know how much your worker's comp injury is worth, watch my other video breaking down average cost by accident type and body part. In it, I also walk through the calculations you need in order to determine the value of your claim. I’ll include a link to that video here. Click to watch it now. I'll see you there.