Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s the dilemma for many injured workers under doctor-given work restrictions.
Injured workers are damned by being subject to discipline if they refuse to work above their restrictions, but they can also be disciplined for doing work “above” their restrictions.
Sometimes “violating” work restrictions can even lead to workers’ compensation benefits being denied.
I thought about this topic after I read a blog post by Thomas Robinson involving a Tennessee worker who hurt himself lifting 29 pounds when his permanent restrictions were 25 pounds. Fortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated that in that case that was not sufficient grounds to deny benefits.
But it “violating” work restrictions can be grounds for denying workers compensation benefits in Nebraska in certain circumstances. Primarily, if an injured worker misrepresents their old injury to a new employer.
Misrepresentation as a defense to paying workers compensation benefits in Nebraska
In Nebraska, an employer can deny benefits if an employee misrepresents their work restrictions in an employment application and that misrepresentation leads to the work injury. I think this law has to be interpreted in combination with ADA and similar disability discrimination state laws. I think checking the box “yes” on employment application of whether you can do a job with or without reasonable accommodation shouldn’t be enough to sustain the misrepresentation defense. But not disclosing an old injury in a post-hire physical or health assessment is stronger evidence in my view.
Some of the more creative minds on the management side argue that concealing an old injury from an employer is willful negligence by an employee. Willful negligence is also grounds to deny workers’ compensation benefits. The Tennessee decision more or less rejected that argument and would be good persuasive authority on the issue.
Fired for violating work restrictions
Can an employer fire you “violating” work restrictions? It depends on the circumstances. If you’re on a 10 pound restriction and you get caught doing cross-fit, I would say yes. But a case where you lift 29 pounds with a 25 pound restriction is a closer call. It’s unlawful to fire some in Nebraska, and most other states, for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Firing someone for a petty and unintentional “violation” of work restrictions would seem suspect and could infer that the workers’ compensation claim was the reason they were fired.
Why I put quote marks around “violations” of work restrictions.
I’m not putting quote marks arounds “violating work restrictions” just to be funny. Maybe I need to explain the joke. Anyone who knows anything about workers’ compensation and is being honest, knows that work restrictions are just an estimate. Even restrictions from a valid Functional Capacity Evaluation are more or less estimates of work abilities.
But what if an employee is fired for exceeding work restrictions that weren’t disclosed?
Fired for concealing work restrictions?
I think these are close cases. As a plaintiff’s lawyer, I would argue that someone who was fired not disclosing a work injury still has a retaliation claim. After all, but for the employee filing a workers’ compensation case, the employer would not have discovered the concealment and fired the employee. Maybe that seems like an overly technical argument, but does the argument at least shift the burden on to the employer to argue an equitable defense like laches or unclean hands? I don’t know the answer to that question, but if there is other evidence of retaliatory motive then concealing an old work injury may not be a lawful reason to terminate an employee.
Don’t risk getting fired
However, as an employee you don’t want to take the risk. The ADA requires that employers attempt to work with you to accommodate a disability. If you are concerned about returning to work after an injury, don’t conceal old injuries if they could reasonably impact your ability to do your job. Often time there are simple fixes that allow you to complete your job duties. The Job Accommodation Network has suggestions about how to accommodate disabilities. Try to use those resources and/or work with your co-workers to try to accommodate your disability. Unions are also a great resource for accommodating an injury, use them when they are available.