Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Realities of Returning Disabled Employees to Work

In an ideal world, injured employees will be able to return to their regular job, full duty, with no recurrence of the issues that lead to their disability.  However, in reality, things often do not go so smoothly.

Employers often ask us whether they can refuse to return an employee to work because of an increased risk of re-injury or because of potential increased worker's compensation costs.  In short, the answer is no, an employer cannot refuse to return an employee to work just because of the risk of re-injury or additional costs.  The only exception is where the employer can show that employment of the person poses a "direct threat" to the health and safety of other individuals in the workplace.   Otherwise, such a refusal would constitute discrimination on the basis of disability.

Where applicable, it is always best for the employer to provide light or modified duty work to a disabled employee.  According to ADA and EEOC guidance, providing a light duty job to an employee with activity restrictions because of a work related injury is one type of “reasonable accommodation”.  In assessing return to work capabilities, the employer should sit down with the employee and conduct an “interactive process” to discuss return to work options.  We always recommend that the employer try to offer a temporary modified duty assignment, within the employee’s restrictions.  Modified duty assignments are usually a win-win for everybody as they can cut down on potential workers’ compensation costs and help the employee gradually return to work as they heal.  Ultimately, the goal, for both employer and employee, is to return the employee to work, performing the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation.