Workers’ compensation, discrimination, and "light duty"

You may be very familiar with the fact that, if you are injured in the course of employment, you are entitled to receive workers' compensation. But is this your only right? What about the right of employment? In other words, can an employee who has filed for or collected workers' compensation benefits ever be discriminated against or discharged by his employer?

The law

The short answer to the above question is: "No." The Connecticut Workers' Compensation provisions directly prohibit the discharge or discrimination in any manner of any employee for filing a claim for workers' compensation benefits or in any manner exercising his or her workers' compensation rights.

"Light duty"

There is one possible exception to the statute. If an employee suffers an injury that prevents that employee from performing his or her regular job, and "light duty" is available, the employer must transfer the employee to a light-duty position. However, the employer is not required to convert a temporary, light-duty position into a regular, permanent position, nor is the employer obligated to create light-duty work. If the employee refuses to do light-duty work, he or she may lose the right to collect workers' compensation benefits and may possibly be discharged.

However, what, exactly, is "light duty"? The term ordinarily refers to temporary or permanent work that is physically or mentally less demanding than normal job duties. "Light duty" may also mean, particular positions with less physically or mentally demanding duties, created particularly as alternative work for employees who cannot perform their routine duties. A case-law definition in the context of workers' compensation is: "Light duty is a form of less strenuous activity available to those employees whose limitations are not due to occupational injury or illness."

Can you turn down a light-duty job and still get compensation?

In a 2010 case from Pennsylvania, a neighboring state, where a worker suffered low back strain and was diagnosed with a herniated disc, a examining doctor said she was capable of driving and returning to work in a light-duty, non-physical job, that of a substitute teacher. However, the worker said she had stopped driving because of leg spasms and that body pain prevented her from thinking and focusing, and she presented testimony from another doctor who said she could not do substitute teaching.

A workers' compensation judge and the appeals board ruled in favor of the employer, and said that, because the worker didn't report for her light-duty job, her benefits could be suspended.

On appeal, the appeals court agreed that the worker should no longer receive benefits. It said that the worker's testimony lacked credibility because she changed her story about an injury she suffered 20 years before the workplace accident, and because her demeanor at trial conflicted with her testimony that her pain affected her ability to think and focus.

The lesson to be learned? Before you turn down light-duty work, get the details of your story straight and make sure that your appearance before the judge or court coincides with your story! If, however, you are injured in a workplace accident, are offered light duty, but sincerely feel that you cannot perform it, consult with an experienced workers' compensation attorney to protect your rights and make sure that you get the benefits you're entitled to.