This post was updated August 2020 to include information about returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Your job is important. When you get hurt and can’t work, your employer wants you to return and fill that position as soon as possible. Your doctor wants you to rest and recover from your injuries. Can your employer override your doctor’s opinion?
Consider Your Health First
Legal considerations aside, your health is your number one priority. You should always follow all of your doctor’s advice and stick to your treatment plan. Never jeopardize your recovery.
When do you have to go back to work after a job-related injury?
You must return to work as soon as you’re physically capable of doing your job. It is up to you and your doctor to determine whether you’re physically capable of returning to work.
You don’t have to return to work if your authorized healthcare provider does not approve it.
Is COVID-19 covered by Workers’ Compensation?
In order for COVID-19 to be covered by Workers’ Compensation, you must be able to prove the following:
- You contracted COVID-19 from exposure at a job site and/or while engaging in assigned job duties, or
- You were at greater risk than the general public of contracting the disease because of your job duties
Employees at ssential businesses, however, are excluded from pursuing civil suits, with an exception for gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or intentional infliction of harm. This measure also does not preclude employees from pursuing criminal actions or filing workers’ compensation claims.
Types of Disabilities Related to Work Injuries
Permanent Total Disability
Only these specific injuries qualify as permanent total disabilities according to North Carolina law:
- Loss of two limbs (both hands, both arms, both feet, both legs, both eyes, or any two)
- Paralysis of both arms, both legs, or the torso
- Severe brain injuries
- Second- or third-degree burns to more than 30% of your body
Any permanent disability merits a settlement from your employer as compensation for the permanent damage.
Once you’ve reached the point of Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI), your doctor will assign you a disability rating. This rating determines the amount of compensation you receive from your employer.
Temporary Total Disability
If your injuries make it impossible for you to work now, but you’ll recover enough to return to work in the future, you fall into the category of temporary total disability. Your employer must pay you 2/3 of your pre-injury salary for up to 500 weeks. Under certain circumstances, that 500-week limit may be extended.
Temporary total disability assumes an eventual return to work, but it can be difficult to judge whether you’re capable of doing your job, especially if it involves physical labor. Your employer is going to want you back on the job as soon as possible, but your doctor may have other ideas. You do have options to make sure you can keep your workers’ compensation benefits without jeopardizing your recovery.
Returning to Work After an Injury or Illness
According to the CDC, employees that have had COVID-19 should not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met, in consultation with healthcare providers. This criterion includes:
- At least 10 days have passed since symptom onset
- At least 24 hours have passed since the resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and
- Other symptoms have improved.
Trial Return to Work
If you think you may have recovered enough to work but you’re not certain, you, your doctor, and your employer can agree on a trial return to your position. That trial period can’t last more than 9 months. If you find that you can’t actually fulfill your duties, you can leave your position until you’ve recovered enough to do so and you’ll continue to get the full benefits of workers’ compensation.
If you’re only partially incapacitated, your employer may choose to offer you a less-demanding job until you recover fully. For example, you may be offered a temporary position doing clerical work until you recover enough to go back to your old position. If your doctor approves the activity you’ll be required to undertake in the temporary position, you do have to accept it. Remember that this rule only applies if your employer expressly offers you a temporary position. Without a formal job offer, you have no obligation to go back to work.
Your employer does not have to pay you your pre-injury salary if you take a temporary position, but they do have to compensate you for 2/3 of the difference between your pre-injury wages and your post-injury wages. You are also entitled to vocational rehabilitation if you are earning less than 75% of what you earned before your injury, so your employer has an incentive to maximize your wages during the transitional period to avoid the costs of vocational rehabilitation.
Do I have to accept a temporary job?
If you take a temporary job, you’ll stay in that position until you’ve recovered sufficiently to reclaim your old job. If you reject a temporary position approved by your doctor, you lose the right to compensation for loss of wages. § 97-32. You’ll still be entitled to medical care coverage, but you won’t be getting a check for your wages until you go back to work.
My employer is pressuring me to return. What should I do?
Remember that if you return to work early and then decide that you aren’t really physically capable of doing your job, you won’t get any compensation for any time you take off and your employer may be able to replace you.
You don’t have to return to work until you are physically capable of doing your job. That determination is made by your doctor, not your employer.
Your employer can’t force you to return to work early. If your doctor has given you restrictions to follow for your recovery, you don’t have to accept a job that exceeds those restrictions. You do, however, have to accept a temporary position that fits within your restrictions.
If your employer is pressuring you to return to work or if you believe your employer has violated your workers’ compensation rights, contact our team of experienced personal injury attorneys for a consultation.