Understand your rights when it comes to light-duty restrictions in Georgia
If you are seriously injured at work or diagnosed with an occupational illness that is covered by Georgia workers’ compensation, you will likely be examined by a physician from a list posted by your employer. Your doctor will then produce a report that might include a prescription of light-duty work restrictions on the physical activities, if any, that you are capable of performing during your recovery.
Next, your employer will determine whether they have a suitable job that fits within the doctor’s restrictions.
Before accepting or rejecting a light-duty position, be sure to seek counsel from a trusted workers’ compensation attorney about your rights and responsibilities under Georgia law.
Georgia’s return to work policies
A fundamental mission of Georgia’s workers’ compensation laws is to encourage injured workers to return to work as soon as recovery from their injuries reasonably permits. The legislative policy is aimed at limiting the insurance companies’ payout obligations and help encourage workers to rejoin the workforce.
Georgia’s State Board of Workers’ Compensation (statute O.C.G.A. 34-9-40, rule 34-9-240) has issued rulings regarding light-work duty: “Effect of refusal of suitable employment by injured employee; attempting or refusing to attempt work with restrictions.”
The new rule, which became effective July 1, 2021, in part provides that:
(b)… if the authorized treating physician releases an employee to return to work with restrictions and the employer tenders a suitable job to the employee within those restrictions, then:
(1) If the employee attempts the proffered job and is unable to perform the job for more than 15 working days, then weekly benefits shall be immediately reinstated, and the burden shall be upon the employer to prove that the employee is not entitled to continuing benefits; or
(2) If the employee refuses to attempt the proffered job, then the employer may unilaterally suspend benefits… Under those circumstances, the burden shall shift to the employee to prove continuing entitlement to benefits.
What does this ruling mean?
In a nutshell, if your employer offers you a light-duty job that fits within your doctor’s prescribed restrictions, then you shall continue to receive benefits only if you try but can’t perform the light duties for more than 15 days. If you refuse to try the light duties, your benefits will be immediately terminated.
Your employer is required to file supporting documents showing that the job offered meets the doctor’s recommendations, but it’s presumed that termination is justified. However, you can appeal the termination—that is, rebut the presumption.
The presumption means that your employer and their insurance company can unilaterally terminate your benefits without an order of the Board of Workers’ Compensation. They must file certain forms, but their termination is immediate and final unless you successfully appeal.
You can rebut the presumption by showing that the light-duty job being offered is not within the restrictions prescribed by your doctor. You should, if you haven’t already, hire an experienced workers’ compensation attorney to pursue your appeal.
A likely controversy of any appeal will be whether the light-duty job offered by your employer is “suitable” within the restrictions prescribed by your doctor. If possible, your attorney should seek to have the doctor specify as much as possible the prescribed restrictions to avoid any ambiguity.
What are some examples of work restrictions?
When a worker is placed on light duty due to a workplace injury, their work restrictions are tailored to their specific medical needs. These can vary greatly depending on the type of injury, the specific medical condition of the employee, and the demands of their job.
Below are some common examples of light-duty work restrictions:
- Limited lifting. Limiting the weight an employee is allowed to lift, such as no lifting over a certain weight limit (e.g., 10 pounds).
- Standing or walking restrictions. Requiring the employee to avoid prolonged standing or walking and allowing them to sit or alternate between sitting and standing as needed.
- Bending or twisting restrictions. Restricting repetitive bending, twisting or other movements that may strain the injured area.
- Repetitive task restrictions. Limiting repetitive motions that could exacerbate the injury, such as typing, using a mouse, or operating machinery for extended periods.
- Climbing or staircase restrictions. Prohibiting climbing ladders, stairs, or other elevated surfaces that could pose a risk to the employee’s injury.
- Driving restrictions. Restricting driving responsibilities due to the physical demands involved or the potential for exacerbating the injury.
- Reduced work hours. Adjusting the employee’s work schedule to fewer hours per day or fewer days per week to allow for rest and recovery.
- Modified workstation. Modifying the employee’s workstation to ensure ergonomic support and minimize strain on the injured area, such as using an adjustable chair or an anti-fatigue mat.
- Limited or no use of heavy machinery. Prohibiting the employee from operating heavy machinery or equipment that requires substantial physical effort.
- No working overtime. Restricting the employee from working beyond their regular hours to prevent overexertion or exacerbation of the injury.
- Pushing or pulling restrictions. Limiting the amount of force the employee can exert when pushing or pulling objects to prevent strain on the injury.
- Exposure to vibrations restrictions. Avoiding tasks or equipment that expose the employee to excessive vibrations, as it can exacerbate certain injuries.
- Temperature or weather restrictions. Restricting exposure to extreme temperatures or adverse weather conditions that may hinder the employee’s recovery or exacerbate their condition.
- No working at heights. Prohibiting work that involves elevated platforms, scaffolding, or other heights due to the potential risk of injury.
- Environmental accommodations. Limiting work that exposes the employee to environmental factors that could worsen their condition, such as loud noises or certain toxic chemicals.
Employers are generally required to make reasonable accommodations to adhere to these restrictions. Failure to do so can lead to further injury and potential legal issues for the employer.
How many hours can you work on light duty?
In Georgia, when you’re on light duty as part of workers’ compensation, there isn’t a specific limit on the number of hours you can work.
However, your work hours and the nature of your duties should align with the limitations set by your authorized treating physician and as specified in your workers’ compensation claim.
Before you return to work on light duty, a WC-240a form should be completed by your treating physician that outlines specific activity limitations for your light duty work. This form helps ensure that any light-duty job offered to you is within your physical capacity and doesn’t aggravate your injury.
In most cases, if within 15 days of returning to work on light duty with a WC-240a form, you find that you cannot perform the assigned duties (after attempting to work either 8 hours or 2 scheduled shifts, whichever is greater), you should be able to stop working, and your temporary total disability (TTD) benefits should automatically resume.
However, if you wait more than 15 days to decide that you cannot perform the light-duty job, your benefits will not automatically restart, and you may have to wait for a hearing to resolve the matter.
For more specific guidance related to your situation, it’s advisable to consult with a workers’ compensation attorney. They can provide personalized advice and help you navigate the complexities of your case to ensure that you receive the benefits you deserve.
What if your employer has no light-duty job to offer?
Your employer is not obligated to offer a light-duty job that falls within your doctor’s restrictions. However, your employer has an incentive to offer one since failing to offer light-duty work will trigger the presumptions under the new rules effective July 1, 2021.
If a suitable light-duty job within your doctor’s restrictions isn’t available, and you remain out of work in a light-duty status, your income benefits will continue for 52 consecutive weeks (or a maximum of 78 total non-consecutive calendar weeks).
How will light-duty work affect your benefits?
If you do accept and successfully perform a qualified light-duty or modified-duty job, your workers’ compensation benefits can be adjusted or eliminated.
For example, if your light or modified duties pay the same or more than your regular job, your payments for lost wages will discontinue. If you make less money than before, you will continue to receive lost wages payments, but modified to compensate for only the shortfall.
Can you collect unemployment while on light-duty?
It depends. You likely won’t qualify for unemployment if you’re on light duty and earning close to your usual wages. That’s because light-duty work and “temporary partial disability” payments from workers’ comp are meant to help cover lost income when you can’t fully work.
In simpler terms, if you’re getting workers’ comp benefits, you usually can’t get unemployment benefits, too.
However, things get complicated if you’re having trouble getting your workers’ comp payments started. Sometimes, injured workers have to wait months for court dates or paperwork to go through. While you’re waiting, you might still struggle to make ends meet.
In these cases, you can apply for unemployment benefits to give yourself some financial support until your workers’ comp kicks in. It’s important to remember that:
- You still need to meet all the usual requirements for unemployment, like being available for full-time work and actively searching for new jobs.
- Your unemployment benefits might be reduced by the amount of your workers’ comp payments.
If you’re on light-duty or having trouble with your workers’ comp, it’s best to talk to your local work injury attorneys.
Think you might have a case?