Many employers are understandably concerned about the amount of temporary disability benefits an injured worker will receive following a work-related injury. In an attempt to reduce workers’ compensation claims costs, some employers will offer their employees the opportunity to work on a “light duty” or “restricted duty” basis. However, employers should be deliberate in how such light duty positions are offered to injured employees. If not monitored and implemented properly, a light duty position could lead to further claims for wrongful termination and discrimination.
Employers should ensure they have a well-crafted light duty program contained within their employee handbooks or directly provide the program to employees. Three of the most important factors of a light duty program are that: (1) a light duty position may not be available to all workers and may not be available at all times due to business needs; (2) if a light duty position is offered, the position will be for a fixed amount of time and the light duty position will not last indefinitely; and (3) if the employee refuses to accept the light duty position or the time the light duty position is available has expired, the employee may be ineligible for certain workers’ compensation benefits or terminated.
The first factor is important in setting forth reasonable expectations for light duty employment. For example, an employer who has an extensive factory staff but a limited office staff may not be able to accommodate an injured factory worker’s restrictions due to lack of work. By not promising that light duty will be available, the employer protects itself from claims of discrimination.
The second factor is important because it is necessary to set limits to the amount of time an employee is not performing the job it was hired to do. By limiting the length of time an employee may work in a light duty position, the employer can gauge whether it is necessary to hire a replacement for the position left vacant by the injured employee. If an employee will not be able to return to their permanent job in a timely manner, the employer can make a much more deliberate and defensible decision about the injured worker’s continued employment.
The third factor is important because it puts an employee on notice that a refusal of a good faith offer of employment may result in the denial of certain benefits or termination of employment. The existence of such a policy reduces an employer’s workers’ compensation costs and saves it money in the long run.
Light duty programs offer benefits to both the employer and injured workers. Employers are able to reduce their workers’ compensation costs and gain a benefit from having an active employee creating value. Injured workers will usually make more money working in a modified duty position than collecting temporary disability payments, and studies show that injured workers who remain actively employed recover more quickly. However, it is important for employers to implement such policies in a responsible manner to avoid unforeseen legal costs and claims of discrimination.