Many injured workers who are out of work collecting weekly workers’ compensation benefits wonder if they have to go back to work when the doctor releases them for light duty work.
The short answer is “Yes!” The workers’ compensation carrier has the absolute right to choose the treating doctor, and if that doctor (called the authorized doctor) releases the injured worker for light or modified duty, the employee is required to check with their employer to see if work that meets the doctor’s restrictions is available. If it is, the worker must to return to work. If light duty work is not available, the worker can stay out of work and collect weekly workers’ compensation benefits until the doctor says that the worker has reached maximum medical improvement (MMI).
In addition to terminating temporary disability benefits when the employee is at maximum medical improvement, an employer can terminate benefits when the employee can return to light or modified duty under Harbatuk v. S & S Furniture Systems Insulation, 211 N.J. Super. 614 (App. Div. 1986). The Court in Harbatuk stated that the employer has to offer a light-duty job to the employee in order to stop paying temporary disability benefits. If the employee rejects the light-duty offer, the employer can still terminate temporary disability benefits. Obviously, the light-duty job has to be one that meets the restrictions/requirements placed on the employee by the authorized treating doctor. And, if the employer has no light duty work available, they still have to pay workers’ compensation temporary disability benefits until the employee has reached maximum medical improvement.
I always tell my clients that they should not assume that the employer has no light duty work available. My advice is that the injured worker should check with their employer every time their doctor gives them work restrictions.
Interestingly, light duty is not defined in the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act. Therefore, if an employer can meet the doctor’s light duty restrictions by assigning the employee to a different job task than they were performing pre-accident, the worker still has to return to work. Unfortunately, the worker does not have the choice. If the employer offers light duty work that meets the restrictions of the treating doctor, the worker must do that job, or the worker will not be paid.
There are many issues that arise when a worker is returning to work after a work related injury. If you have questions regarding “light duty” and would like to discuss your case in more detail, please feel free to contact me or come in and meet with me here in my firm’s Marlton, New Jersey office for a free consultation.