Georgia laws regarding workers’ compensation benefits after an injured employee’s termination
A couple of related questions we commonly get from both current and prospective clients are:
- Can I be fired if I report an on the job injury?
- Can I be fired while I am receiving workers’ compensation benefits?
The unfortunate answer to both of these questions is yes.
However, if an employer terminates an injured worker, it can affect benefits owed to the injured worker in significant ways. In this article, we’ll explore these impacts and talk about the rights of injured workers in Georgia.
At will employment & employee rights in Georgia
Georgia is an “at will” employment state. This means employees can generally be fired for any reason that is not discriminatory. If they are fired for reasons that are discriminatory, the employee may have a “cause of action.”
Federal law states that it’s illegal to fire an employee if the grounds for the termination is based upon a protected characteristic. Protected characteristics under federal law include:
- National origin
- Age (if the employee is at least 40)
- Citizenship status
- Genetic information
Note that it’s not prohibited to fire an individual if they file a workers’ compensation case against their employer. Those who are injured on the job are not part of a protected class.
Consequences of firing an employee who is receiving workers’ compensation
Just because an individual can be fired when they have filed a workers’ compensation claim, doesn’t mean there are no ramifications if they are fired. Let’s explore a few of the consequences.
Employer (or their insurer) must still pay indemnity benefits
First, remember what makes an individual eligible for workers compensation benefits. If an injured worker is taken out of work for more than 7 consecutive days by the authorized treating physician, they are eligible for workers compensation benefits under O.C.G.A.34-9-26. They are also eligible for temporary total disability benefits if the authorized treating physician has placed them on work restrictions and the employer cannot accommodate those restrictions.
When an individual is fired for reporting an injury, they are still entitled to benefits allowed under workers’ compensation laws. Termination before they have received medical treatment or indemnity benefits doesn’t preclude them from being entitled to protections provided by workers’ compensation.
An injured worker doesn’t have to be an ongoing employee to be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.
If an employee has been fired because they filed a workers’ compensation claim once they have been injured on the job, they are no longer an employee of the company where they worked. Therefore, if a doctor places them on restrictions, the employer cannot accommodate those restrictions and therefore be required to pay indemnity benefits.
Insurance companies like to make money. They don’t like to pay out claims because every dollar spent on an injured worker means one less dollar of profit. Therefore, they don’t like it when an injured worker is fired because they reported an injury. This action increases the amount they will have to spend on a claim if a doctor ever places restrictions on the injured worker.
The work injury may be more severe than initially thought
Second, an injured worker may not initially be placed on restrictions. The employer may fire the injured worker thinking they are getting rid of someone who complained of an injury in the job. Unfortunately, the initial medical care of many injured workers is insufficient. They are often sent to an industrial clinic who informs them that they are fine and can return to work.
The injured worker may only become aware of the true nature and severity of their injury once they see an orthopedic specialist. If someone is hurt on the job, they are entitled to treatment with a doctor paid for by the insurance company. Furthermore, O.C.G.A. 34-9-200 states that the injured worker is entitled to a one-time change in authorized treating physicians to a panel doctor of their choice.
Once the injured worker has been seen by a specialist and proper care is finally provided, they may be given work restrictions by the authorized treating physician. If they have already been terminated by the employer prior to the restrictions being placed on them, indemnity benefits are required to be paid. The reason for this is because the employer cannot accommodate these physical restrictions because the injured worker is no longer an employee and you cannot make non-employees work for you.
Challenges facing fired workers who were injured at work
A serious problem for injured workers arises when they are working with restrictions after they have been injured on the job and receiving indemnity benefits. If they are terminated because of their on-the-job injury, then benefits have to be commenced. However, even if the injured worker believes that they were terminated because they were injured on the job, they still have to prove it.
Without an official termination notice stating the reason for the termination, this can be difficult to prove. Sometimes, they even change their rationale to fit a narrative that potentially absolves them from paying workers’ compensation benefits.
Employers may come up with bogus reasons for the termination.
Most likely, this matter will have to be tried before an administrative law judge at a hearing. Therefore, it’s very important to discuss returning to work with an attorney before you do so.
Though an individual can be fired for bringing a workers’ compensation claim in Georgia, there are consequences of doing so. Talk to an experienced attorney to learn about your rights. The Athens attorneys at Gerber & Holder are ready to answer any questions you may have.