Some employers offer light duty work to workers injured on the job, often based on the opinion of an insurance company doctor. Pennsylvania law requires you to make a good faith effort to follow through on such an offer. If you're physically capable of performing the job, you must continue working at that position as long as it is available. If you refuse to try the job, you'll have no way to tell if your employer was honestly offering light duty and may end up losing your benefits.
But what if you return to work and learn that your employer plays dirty? To protect yourself against dirty employer tactics, read my article, "Fighting Back," which discusses the remedies available to hassled employees. Read it before returning to work. The following is a list of the seven most common improper employer return to work tactics:
In this scenario, the company falsely claims that light duty is available. Don’t make the mistake of failing to follow through on an offer of such work. If you don’t show up and find out what the job is all about, you will have no way to prove that the job was not light. Unfortunately, your employer may claim that light work is available, but when you show up your supervisor tells you to do your regular job heaving concrete into roll-off containers.
Often companies provide light duty, but over time, ask you to perform more and more strenuous tasks. Beware of the employer who keeps you at a desk job for two weeks before demanding that you carry a refrigerator to the 10th floor.
Some companies will tell you not to do anything heavy and then tell you to perform jobs you couldn't possibly do without hurting yourself. I once represented a graveyard shift steel worker with a 20 pound lifting restriction. His employer provided him with two inexperienced assistants who could not possibly get the product to the loading dock alone. The company told him to not do anything heavy but to make sure the product was on the dock by the morning.
Your employer may tell you to sit all day in a conference room. You may be told that you can bring in a book or watch television all day. Surprisingly, this type of behavior is permitted in Pennsylvania.
Particularly nasty employers enjoy driving you to the edge of sanity to force you to misbehave, quit or return to your regular job. For example, your employer may require you to look at the same safety films day after day or do nothing at all. They may tell co-workers not to speak with you. The supervisor a client with a severe knee injury forced him to sit in a chair next to a busy production line. Whenever he walked past, he lightly whispered attacks on the injured worker’s manhood. Not surprisingly, he exploded in anger and threw his chair at his sleazy, sneaky supervisor. Prison would be less mentally taxing than this type of torture.
Here’s a clever tactic of some sadistic employers: turn your co-employees against you! For example, your boss may assign you to a speedy manufacturing line and tell you to ask for help to do any heavy lifting. Resentful because they have to do your work in addition to their own, your colleagues may soon start rolling their eyeballs and treat you rudely.
Some employers will progressively discipline you, eventually firing you. If they prove you were discharged for reasons unrelated to the work injury, you are not entitled to wage loss benefits. Even if you otherwise have a completely clean record in your years with the employer, you may suddenly find that you are being disciplined for minor rule infractions. If you are fired, you may have a claim for wrongful discharge.
I represented a man who suffered a severe back injury while working for a pie manufacturing company that assigned him “light duty” after the injury. They ordered him to sit on a chair in the bathroom, writing down the toileting activities of visitors. You can imagine what it was like for him to be sitting in a toilet all day long, in pain, on medication and resented by every person who entered the bathroom. His co-workers soon started calling him the “peter patrol.”
One day he came to work in severe pain and took an extra dose of medication, causing him to fall asleep in the bathroom. His employer fired him for sleeping on duty. When he testified, the Judge was clearly furious. The supervisor who fired him sat nervously in the courtroom. When I called him as my next witness, the lawyer for the employer pulled me aside. “We give up,” she said. The check soon followed.
When your employer plays these hardball tactics, you often have no choice but to consult an experienced lawyer. But how do you choose the right one? Find out in The Wounded Worker: Inside the Pennsylvania Workers' Comp Maze, which you can download or order at left.