Refusing Light-Duty Work is (almost always) a Bad Idea

One of the more common questions I get from injured workers is how quitting their job will affect their entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits and ultimate recovery.  The answer to that question is two-fold – it does not affect your entitlement to MEDICAL benefits; however, it can severely limit or even prevent recovery of certain MONETARY benefits.  Refusing a light duty assignment is treated essentially the same as quitting employment, and I almost always recommend against it.

As far as entitlement, your injury occurs at a certain time with a certain employer.  That specific injury is forever tied to that employer and their insurance company.  There is no requirement that an injured worker must continue employment with this employer to receive entitlement to workers compensation because that entitlement is established at the time of injury.   For that reason, an injured worker can quit the same day as the injury, but he or she will still receive any medical treatment that is required from the on the job injury.  (This, of course, assumes that the injury occurred in the course of and arising from employment and was properly reported to the employer).

The problem with refusing light duty arises when you are looking at income benefits, specifically temporary income benefits.  Basically, temporary income benefits are paid while a worker is recovering and are meant to sustain wage loss during that time.  There is an Idaho Supreme Court case that addresses entitlement to temporary benefits, Malueg v. Pierson Enterprises, 111 Idaho 789, 727 P.2d 1217 (1986).  In Malueg, the Court stated: “once a claimant establishes by medical evidence that he is still within the period of recovery from the original industrial accident, he is entitled to total temporary disability benefits unless and until evidence is presented that he has been medically released for light work and that (1) his former employer has made a reasonable and legitimate offer of employment to him which he is capable of performing under the terms of his light work release and which employment is likely to continue throughout his period of recovery or that (2) there is employment available in the general labor market which Claimant has a reasonable opportunity of securing and which employment is consistent with the terms of his light duty work release.”

Insurance companies understand the requirements of Malueg and will use it to their advantage.  Many insurance companies have employers make light-duty offers as soon as a doctor provides a release.  They do this knowing that some people will refuse, and no benefits will be owed.  It is important to note that this offer must be “reasonable” to qualify, but insurance companies give great latitude in making the determination of whether the offer was reasonable.  Even if you are able to prove that such an offer was not reasonable, then it may be months or even years to recover those funds.  Workers’ compensation proceedings generally take several months at a minimum, and sometimes, it can take much longer depending on the complexity of the case and the caseload at the Industrial Commission.

If you are in a situation where you have been offered light duty, and you are unsure whether you will be able to do the job, I recommend attempting the job.  If the job is impossible due to pain or for some other reason, I instruct my clients to immediately ask their employer to let them go to the doctor to get their restrictions updated.  It is important to tell the doctor what specific activities your employer offered and explain why you cannot do these activities.  Doctors (unlike employers) are under an ethical obligation to limit harm to their patient, and most will accommodate specific requests to modify restrictions.  If there is a pattern of issues with light duty (or if the employer is simply ignoring the doctor’s recommendations), most doctors will simply take the injured off work completely until it is appropriate.

One more thing I would state.  Light-duty is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  It can be beneficial for an injured worker to continue to come into work rather than get into the routine of not working.  Attendance at work is also helpful in demonstrating to your employer that you want to be a part of the team and generally you end up with more money in your pocket than if you were to sit at home.

If you have any questions about requirements of light-duty, your best bet is to contact a knowledgeable attorney about the issue.