What happens when an injured worker refuses light duty? Does the company have to keep the light-duty job open forever?
Alfred Napierski, a plumber, injured his leg on the job when a ditch collapsed. His employer, Scobell Co., accepted liability, and Napierski received total disability benefits under workers’ comp.
Scobell referred Napierski to a company that helps employees return to work. The firm found the former plumber a full-time sedentary job in telephone customer service at another company. The job was funded by Scobell.
The location of Napierski’s customer service job moved because of a mouse infestation. When he noticed mouse feces in paperwork that had been transported to the new location, he quit on the spot. He said his employer was “playing games” with him.
A worker’s comp judge (WCJ) found Napierski refused in bad faith to continue in the light duty job. Therefore, his benefits were reduced to a partial disability rate — the difference between what he would have earned as a plumber and the customer service job. His new benefit paid about $375 per week.
Five years later, Napierski asked Scobell to fund the light duty job for him again so he could return to work. When he didn’t hear back from his former employer, Napierski filed a petition to have his total disability benefits reinstated. Scobell said since Napierski left the light-duty job, he wasn’t entitled to it.
The WCJ rejected Napierski’s request, citing state law that said the only way he could get total disability benefits back was to prove that his medical condition had worsened to the point that he could no longer do the sedentary customer service job. That wasn’t the case, here.
The WCJ concluded it wouldn’t be fair to allow Napierski to avoid the legal consequences of refusing the light-duty job by reinstating him to it five years later. The judge denied his request to return to total disability benefits.
Napierski took his case to a state court.
Is a funded light-duty job different?
The former plumber acknowledged that previous court rulings in Pennsylvania stated once an injured employee voluntarily walked out on a light-duty job, the employer no longer had to hold the job open.
But Napierski argued his situation was different because Scobell funded his light-duty job at another company. The former plumber said leaving a funded job in bad faith didn’t mean his employer shouldn’t have to provide him a job because he regrets his earlier refusal of work.
Nice try, said the court. The judges ruled that it didn’t matter whether the job was with his former employer or funded by his former employer at another company. If Napierski walked out — and the mouse droppings didn’t matter — he was no longer entitled to the light-duty position. (PDF of decision.)
It would have been a different case had the company eliminated the light-duty job. In that case, Napierski would have been eligible to have his total disability benefits reinstated.
The take-home: Injured workers can’t just quit a light-duty job. Having a light-duty plan can save your company money in workers’ comp costs.
A side note: Do you have workers’ comp cases that go back several years, or maybe even decades? You’re not alone. This case dates back to 1995 when Napierski was originally injured.
One situation when they can refuse
While it may be difficult for injured employees to refuse light-duty assignments and be returned to workers’ comp benefits, it’s not impossible.
Example: A truck driver injured his shoulder. His employer offered him a light-duty job … 387 miles away in its offices.
The company said it would cover the employee’s costs to allow him to return home every other weekend.
However, the driver was able to return home every weekend when he was on the road, and sometimes during the week, too.
The driver declined the light-duty offer, and the company suspended his workers’ comp benefits.
The employee appealed, and a workers’ comp commissioner ruled the company didn’t offer “suitable” light duty. Therefore, the driver’s workers’ comp benefits had to be reinstated.
The case was appealed all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court, which upheld the workers’ comp commissioner’s initial ruling.
What do you think of the courts’ rulings in these cases? Let us know in the comments below.
(Napierski v. Scobell Co., Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 330 C.D. 2012, 1/10/13)