Light Duty Seems Reasonable
The concept seems reasonable and straightforward. An injured worker is cleared by their physician for “light duty” and returns to work. They come back in a capacity that is suitable to their incapacity, in other words for work that shouldn’t be limited by their disability. On the surface, this solution is a “win-win” for all involved. The employee gets back in the groove and receives a paycheck. The company benefits from their productivity, even if it’s in a different area. Worker’s compensation benefits are suspended because the employee is back at work and costs to the insurer and (ultimately) the employer are reduced. But it doesn’t always work out this way.
Let’s look at a few scenarios:
- The worker comes back and all is well. His recovery progresses and he eventually returns to regular duty.
- The worker gives it a shot, but really isn’t well enough to return to work.
- The employee really would prefer to stay at home and draw disability.
- There are extenuating circumstances – the new job doesn’t fit or it interferes with the employee’s other activities.
The first scenario is optimum, but the other instances can get complicated. Changes to the Georgia Workers Compensation law in 2013 were intended to clarify and systematize the “light duty” process, but did they? In 2013, HB154 added provisions to the Georgia Code (O.C.G.A. § 34-9-240) requiring an 8 hour “attempt” at the light duty position. Basically, the revision to the law requires workers to try to come back to work, to make a legitimate effort. Employers are required to formally notify the worker of the available “light duty” position. If the employee fails to complete the 8 hour “attempt,” the employer may file a form (WC-2) and suspend further disability benefits. In this case, the burden of proof is on the employee to prove that their incapacity precluded the return to work.
If the employee completes the 8 hour attempt, but is then unable to stay at work in the light duty position, complications increase. If the worker decides within a 15 day grace period that they’re not able to continue, disability benefits are restored and the burden of proof shifts back to the employer. Employers can appeal the restoration, but the process is complex, and there is no certainty that the disability payments will be rescinded.
Scenario #4 adds more to the confusion. In Technical College System of Georgia v. McGruder, the employee returned to work at Augusta Technical College in a light duty position after suffering a back injury, but after 9 days presented her employer with a letter from her primary care physician stating that she suffered from other serious medical problems that prevented her from working “in any job in any capacity.” Because the other problems were not related to the injury, the college did not resume the benefits. The employee then filed a claim seeking restoration of benefits. After considerable legal wrangling and appeals, the court ruled in her favor.
Do You Need to Learn More?
When it comes to worker’s compensation, nothing is really straightforward. The provisions of Georgia and federal law are complicated and legal pitfalls abound. If you need to learn more about Georgia’s Worker’s Compensation law and the complexity of federal regulations that involve disability and family medical leave, you may want to attend the next workshop in Georgia Employers’ Association’s Employment Law Certificate Program. In the next session, Jason Logan, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, and Smith, LLC, will provide an update on a combination of laws and regulations that has come to be known as the Devil’s Triangle: FMLA, the ADA, and Georgia Worker’s Comp regulations. More information is available at the link above and you can also register for the workshop on this website.