Imagine this unpleasant chain of events: You have been injured at work, are unable to do your job, and then receive a letter from your company informing you that your employment has been terminated. Talk about adding insult to injury. How will this affect your workers’ compensation claim? And is it legal for your employer to terminate you while you have a workers’ comp. claim?
Let’s first take a look at what happens if you are receiving workers’ comp. benefits and you are separated from employment – either terminated or laid off. Whether your benefits will continue depends on if you are working, and if so what level of work, as well as the circumstances surrounding your separation. We’ll look at a few hypotheticals.
You are doing part-time, light-duty work, and the insurance company is paying you what’s called partial disability benefits based on your reduced wages due to your work injury. In other words, you were making $800 per week at the time of your injury and are now making $500 per week on light-duty. Workers’ comp. will pay you 2/3 of your $300 loss of wages — $200. Suppose that you and several of your co-workers are laid off due to a downturn in business at your company, and you are out of a job. The workers’ comp. insurance company will be required to reinstate your benefits from partial disability to total disability because you are still suffering a disability as a result of your work injury, and now that you have been laid off and are receiving no wages, you are entitled to be compensated for your full loss of wages.
If you are laid off while doing your full-duty job, you would not be entitled to workers’ comp. benefits because, under this scenario, your work injury is not preventing you from performing your job without limitations. The only way you would be entitled to benefits is if you establish that your condition stemming from your work injury has worsened to the extent that you are unable to work.
We’ll now turn to the question of whether your employer’s termination of you is legal or you have a basis to sue them. While this is not an issue governed by workers’ compensation law – it’s an employment law issue – and this is a workers’ comp. blog, nevertheless we will give you a quick summary of the law. Pennsylvania is an “at will” employment law state, which means that unless you are in a union and have a collecting bargaining agreement with your employer, you are employed at will, which means that your employer can terminate you for any reason or no reason at all. If your boss doesn’t think you smile enough and lets you go, you’re not going to have a leg to stand on to sue them. The most notable exception to the at will doctrine is that an employer cannot terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons, based on race sex, age, or any other protected class.
In 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a decision in a case called Shick finding that an injured worker has a potential claim if the employer fires that person in retaliation for pursuing a workers’ comp. claim. The Supreme Court found that an employee’s right to file a workers’ comp. claim is protected activity under Pennsylvania law. Please understand, though, that if your employer terminates you while you have a workers’ compensation claim or are going to pursue one doesn’t necessarily mean that they terminated you because you got injured at work and are seeking workers’ comp. benefits. Sometimes, an employer will allow a certain period of time to pass, six months or a year, and if the injured worker hasn’t returned to work, the employer will make a business decision and let the person go. That doesn’t mean its decision was motivated by retaliation.
If you have been injured yourself at work, whether or not you have been terminated or laid off by your employer, please contact Pearson Koutcher Law because all we do is handle workers’ compensation cases. Each of our lawyers has more than 25 years of experience representing injured workers and will make sure that all of your workers’ compensation rights are protected. If you have been terminated and think that your employer has retaliated against you for pursuing a workers’ comp. claim, we will refer you to a top employment lawyer who will evaluate whether you have a viable wrongful termination case. Please call us today for a free comprehensive consultation.