What is Light Duty Work in North Carolina and Virginia Workers’ Compensation Cases?

Posted on Wednesday, January 10th, 2018 at 11:44 am    

Light duty work is a legal term of art that you should review with your North Carolina or Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer. “Light Duty” typically means that your authorized treating doctor has released you to some kind of work with physical restrictions, but not your usual job.  An example might be “no lifting over 10 lbs, no bending, stooping, no climbing ladders or working at heights.” If you work as a roofer, that is going to knock you out of your job, at least for now.  Alternatively, if your injuries and restrictions are more severe, you may be restricted to a sedentary or seated job.

What happens to your case as a result of that light duty release depends on many, many factors that are extremely complex.  In many instances, particularly in Virginia, a light duty release by your doctor should be treated like a hydrogen bomb that has just been dropped on your case. You could be cut off of all benefits immediately, if you are not already under an Award for Comp Benefits that has finalized.  

Accommodation by the Employer-The Kiss of Death

Oftentimes, employers will say that they simply do not have any such thing as “light duty.” We will discuss your obligations in that regard soon. That is where the Award issue becomes important; however, if the employer decides to accommodate your restrictions by giving you a “made up” job, then it does not matter whether you are under an Award or not. If your doctor is made aware of the exact type of light duty work you will be doing and the doctor states you can do the work as long as it meets his medical restrictions, then you need to try to do the light duty work. Failure to try the work may result in the loss of your benefits AND the loss of your job.

We are sorry to say that most of the time, accommodation of light duty work by the employer is usually a veiled attempt to harass you and make you trip up and do something insubordinate, so that the employer can fire you. Then, your workers comp case is basically over. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism under the law to do anything about it. You basically have to tough it out unless and until your doctor pulls you back out of work completely.

That is not to say that all employers are out to get you. Some legitimately do want to help you. It is said that allowing you to come back to work on light duty helps you in the following ways, for example:

  • It helps the employee stay focused on returning to work. This can help the injured worker mentally.
  • It helps the worker adjust to the physical demands of work as he/she is getting medical treatment
  • If allows the worker an ability to enjoy his/her job and the company of co-workers.

As an experienced work injury lawyer, however, I must tell you that more often than not, employers often try to use light duty work as a way not to help you, but to try to cut off your benefits. If you fail to follow proper procedures and the recommendations of your doctors as to whether you can do light duty work – you may lose your job and your benefits.

When the employer does not have light duty work or cannot accommodate your restrictions

As discussed previously, many times, the employer will not have anything for you to do within your restrictions. The reason for this is that by returning to the job site, especially if you are in a delicate state, you present a risk to the employer and the workers compensation insurance company of re-injury on the job. Then the employer will have to deal with a whole different injury date and possibly additional injuries. If this occurs, there are two completely different scenarios that can occur, which we will now explain.

Scenario A: You have a finalized, Open Award in Virginia or an Accepted Claim in North Carolina

This is where your Award comes in. If you have a Virginia comp case, whether or not you are under a finalized, ongoing, or Open Award (more than 30 days have passed since entry of the Award) when you are released to light duty will dictate what happens next.

If you are under a finalized Award which says that you are to get comp checks every week without an end date (i.e. Open or ongoing checks), this means that the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission has proclaimed that you have a right to those benefits unless and until the employer can show that you are capable of returning to your pre-injury work. So your checks will not stop.

What may happen at that point is that the comp carrier may hire a vocational rehabilitation expert to attempt to find you work within your restrictions. Be aware that some of these folks can be extremely aggressive. You must be careful, because typically their real job is not to find you a job but to have you trip up and miss meetings and fail job search requirements so that you can be cut off of benefits.

But sometimes, particularly if your injuries are severe, you are older, and your education level is limited, the workers compensation insurance company realizes that vocational rehabilitation will likely be a waste of time and your checks may simply continue until such time as either the parties can come to a settlement agreement, your doctor releases you to full duty, or your 500 weeks of benefits expires.

In North Carolina, a claim is accepted when the employer files a Form 60, indicating you are entitled to benefits; however, that Form 60 does not have the same force that it has in Virginia. Yes, if you are released to light duty, you are likely to continue to receive benefits if there is a Form 60 filed by the employer; however, we always counsel our North Carolina clients who are receiving such benefits to search for a minimum of 3-5 jobs per week within their physical restrictions and skill set, if the employer will not accommodate your restrictions. This is because if something comes up in your case, you may have to prove that you were entitled to these ongoing benefits.  And an injured worker on light duty in North Carolina is technically only entitled to those benefits when he or she can prove that they have sought work within their restrictions but have been unable to find such work.

Scenario B: You do not have an Award in Virginia or your claim has been denied in VA or NC

If you are not under a finalized, ongoing, or Open Award for benefits in Virginia, it may be for any number of reasons. The most common reason is that you simply were not aware that you were required to get one. Many employers will pay you benefits voluntarily while your authorized treating doctor is holding you completely out of work. That is, until the day when you are released to light duty. The unfortunate reality is that when that day comes, you may suddenly discover that your employer has cut you off of benefits. How can they do that?

You will recall above that we said that an ongoing or Open Award for benefits issued by the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission is a proclamation that you are entitled to ongoing weekly checks and medical benefits. The checks will continue unless and until you return to your pre-injury work.

Well, here, there has been no such proclamation issued by anyone. You therefore have no rights and the workers comp insurance carrier is not under any obligation to do anything for you.

Your only remedy at that point is to file a Claim for Benefits and ask for a hearing and also vigorously market your residual capacity to work. The idea is that when you get to the hearing, you will be able to prove to the Commission, without any shadow of a doubt, that you have sought work—we recommend a minimum of 7-10 jobs per week–within your physical restrictions and have been unable to find any such work.  You must present this evidence at the hearing in an organized, overwhelming fashion. If you do not do this, the Deputy Commissioner will likely reject your evidence and not Award you benefits.

If you do present the evidence properly and the Deputy Commissioner decides that you adequately looked for jobs, you will be awarded backdated workers compensation checks from the date that you can first prove that you do adequately looked for jobs within your restrictions and skill set.

A few scenarios to be aware of

  • Your employer may give you a light duty job that is humiliating or incredibly boring in the hope that you will quit or refuse to do the work. You need to keep working at the job until a formal decision is made by the state workers’ compensation hearing officer or commission.
  • It is important that you communicate with your doctor and with your employer about your physical injuries and what tasks you simply cannot perform.
  • The employer may tell you that light duty work is available but when you show up to the job, the employer just wants you to perform your old job. Or you may be given a light-duty job but then told you need to help out with the full-duty job tasks. If this scenario happens, you should review your rights with your lawyer and inform your doctor. If your doctor hasn’t released you to full-duty work, then you shouldn’t be forced to do the full-duty job
  • Some employers may look for any excuse to discipline you and then claim you are being discharged for disciplinary reasons and not because of your work injury. You should review this type of behavior with your North Carolina or Virginia work injury lawyer immediately.
  • If you return to work on light duty and have trouble doing your light duty job, be very careful to pay attention to exactly what tasks are causing you trouble so you can tell your doctor when you return. For instance, if you have a leg injury, does it hurt your leg when you attempt to climb stairs? This would be something you would want to report to your doctor. If the problem is severe enough, the doctor may add a “no stairclimbing” restriction.

 

Talk with a trusted North Carolina or Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer now

Understand what light duty work really means and the consequence of being released to light duty. You must make sure that you always know what your physical restrictions are. Depending on the status of your claim and the inclinations of your employer, a release to light duty can either be a destructive atomic bomb, or your benefits may continue uninterrupted.  An experienced workers comp lawyer can explain when and how your release to light duty will impact your case. Your lawyer can also make sure your doctor is fully aware of what your return-to-work scenario looks like, so that he or she knows what is being approved for you to do. For strong advocacy, please phone attorney Joe Miller Esq. at (888) 694-1671 or use his contact form. He’s been helping injured workers get justice for over 25 years.