This week’s question comes from Marcus L., who asks:
Q: I hurt my back in a work-related accident. My employer won’t let me come back to work unless I am at full duty, but the doctor says I can’t lift more than 15 pounds. Can my job do that?
A: Unfortunately, Marcus, many people find themselves in your position. Employers are often well aware of workers’ compensation rules, but don’t understand how those rules interact with other laws, such as the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).
Often, when there has been a work-related accident, an employer will properly provide paid time off while the worker recovers. That is one of the remedies available under the workers’ compensation system. However, when a worker is ready to return to work but still limited in some capacity, or when a worker is ready to return to work but may require a shortened schedule, other conflicting laws come into play to protect workers like you.
If a worker’s injury causes permanent or long-term limitations, he or she may be entitled to protections under the ADA. The ADA requires employers to allow a person with a disability to continue working at his or her job so long as there is a reasonable accommodation that would allow the person to perform the essential functions of their position.
In your case, if your back injury has long-term effects on major life activities, you may be a “qualified person with a disability,” and thereby entitled to the protections of the ADA. Your employer may be required to offer an accommodation to allow you to complete those essential job functions.
It is important to understand that there is not any one specific accommodation that is required. The employer and the worker are expected to engage in a good faith interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation can take many forms, including additional equipment, change of job structure or any other change that would allow the essential job functions to be completed.
You and the employer would have to figure out what best suites both of your needs.
Similarly, sometimes additional time off or a shortened schedule may be required. A reduced or shortened schedule can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. If the employer is big enough and the worker has been there for more than a year and works at least half time, the CFRA may allow a worker to return to work on a different schedule — even if they are not released to full duty.
Larger companies, ones whose human resources personnel should be expected to know these laws, often get it wrong. A myopic focus on the workers’ compensation system can keep employers from seeing and analyzing the other laws that protect their workers. When that happens, good and loyal employees may be unlawfully prevented from returning to work.