When injury strikes, modified work can be the bridge between disability and a full return to the workforce
Under ideal circumstances, employees injured or sickened on the job recover quickly and are able to resume duties no worse for wear. But not everyone gets off so lucky.
Oftentimes doctors permit a return to work provided allowances are made for an injury or illness. These allowances are referred to as “modified work” or “light duty.” But this can lead to a lot of confusion and misunderstandings. To ensure their own safety, injured employees need to be clear on what’s expected of them and what their supervisors expect from them. Ideally, everyone would be on the same page: the employer would have a good light-duty program in place, supervisors would be well-informed, and the employee could realistically execute their modified work. But things have a tendency to go off the rails.
Is an employer required to provide modified work?
The laws vary from province to province, but generally, when it comes to light duty assignments, workers’ compensation law cuts both ways. Employers have to offer it if it’s available, and employees have to accept it if it’s offered. However, it’s important to note that the availability of modified work can be an issue. Some industries simply don’t have light-duty opportunities and some industries don’t have light-duty opportunities for certain types of workers. For example, an oil industry worker with a back injury who has recovered sufficiently to resume activities, but can’t do tasks that involve bending, crouching, stooping or lifting more than 15 pounds, may not have a modified opportunity. In cases where employers do not provide modified work, an experienced worker’s representative will file a complaint with workers’ comp to hold the employer accountable.
What if your employer doesn’t have modified work?
If an employer doesn’t have modified work available, the worker will typically stay on temporary total disability until they reach maximum medical improvement (aka MMI or medical plateau). However, this is often not an accommodation a worker can achieve without the assistance of a worker’s rep. To ensure a successful outcome, the worker should provide a reliable and detailed narrative of their injury, including any corroborating witnesses, and keep a contemporaneous journal of their injury and recovery.
And if you refuse an offer of modified work?
Tread carefully here. Bear in mind that your employer has a legal duty to accommodate disability to a point of undue hardship. If modified duties are offered and you refuse, not only may that jeopardize your benefits, you may also be relieving your employer of its duty to accommodate disability. In other words, by refusing modified, an injured worker could unwittingly provide an unscrupulous employer with an escape hatch. That said, if returning to work legitimately risks aggravating your injury, what recourse do you have?
Well, decide to abruptly resign and the Board could declare that you’ve chosen to voluntarily limit your income. This could threaten your wage-loss benefits while complicating your claim for unemployment coverage. Should you quit after being cleared to resume work with accommodations, you may even forfeit entitlement to a permanent disability award. And so, where an injury ought to preclude a return to work, so long as you remain on payroll and your doctor keeps issuing medical restrictions, disability benefits are likely to continue. In other words, stay in regular contact with your doctor, because your GP may be the only thing standing between you and a misbegotten return-to-work plan.
The last word
In summary, if you’re unable to return to your previous job due to an injury or illness and the employer is unable or unwilling to offer light or modified duty, you may have to stay on temporary total disability. However, it’s possible you’ll need the assistance of an astute rep to obtain this accommodation. Or if you’re being harassed or terminated over work restrictions, you’ll likewise want representation to help you understand the workers’ comp implications. Lastly, where an employer offers a modified work assignment that’s incongruent with the worker’s condition, the worker may need to accept it, if only temporarily, in order to avoid jeopardizing their case. And in any case, it’s important to have the right rep to help protect your rights and ensure that the employer is following the proper protocols.