Accidents in the workplace happen all the time and what happens after can be stressful for all parties involved. Workers’ compensation policies were created to reduce employees’ stress by providing benefits for bodily or other harm from the workplace, including illness from prolonged exposure to a dangerous substance.
Benefits cover expenses related to the injury, from healthcare costs to income replacement, with the exact amount paid depending on the severity of the injury, whether or not it is permanent and whether the employee worked full or part time. Employers must by law have an insurance policy to cover these costs. The policy allows the insurance company to decide which doctors or other medical professionals will provide treatment and for those professionals to decide how long the treatment or disability should be. Thi does not, of course, include self-inflicted injuries, or those suffered outside of the workplace.
According to the New Jersey Department of Labor, employers are limited in the responses they can initiate in the wake of an injured worker. They can’t retaliate (such as terminating employment) against an employee because the employee filed or attempted to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. Nor can a business take such actions against anyone who testifies for an injured worker in a workers’ compensation case. Also, if an employee is left in a handicapped state after the injury, employers can’t terminate the employment of the employee because of a disabling condition, without risking violation of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). At the same time, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides a period of 12 workweeks of leave in a twelve-month period for eligible employees suffering from a “serious health condition” that prevents them from performing the essential functions of their job.
The ADA, FMLA, and Department of Labor guidelines don’t prevent termination in all circumstances. Employees at will (those working without a formal employment contract) can have their employment terminated at any time for any legal, non-discriminatory reason. If a business finds itself in the position where a worker can no longer perform the “essential functions” of his or her employment, it can offer the employee another less physically taxing position, if it exists. There is no duty on a business to “create” a job. While seeking legal advice is recommended, it’s best for an employer to try to work with the employee to work out an arrangement, before firing her/him and risking a lawsuit. Loree Varella is a graduate of Rutgers School of Law Newark and collaborated with me on this blog. She was Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and Managing Research Editor of that publication.