What is a meaningful return to work, and what does that mean for my case?

Under current Tennessee workers’ compensation law one of the biggest factors in determining how much money an injured worker receives for a disability award is whether the worker made “a meaningful return to work”.  While other factors, such as impairment rating and compensation rate are important, if an injured worker has not made a meaningful return with their pre-injury employer, it can have a large impact on the worker’s case.

According to a leading court case on the matter, the concept of “meaningful return to work” came about in response to the workers’ compensation system failed to address the “common circumstance in which an employee who becomes permanently, partially disabled as a result of a workplace injury returns to work for the pre-injury employer but does not remain employed.”

An employee has not made a meaningful return to work if he/she returns to work but later resigns or retires for reasons that are “reasonably related” to the workplace injury.  If, on the other hand, the employee retires or resigns for personal reasons or “other reasons that are not reasonably related to his or her workplace injury”, then the employee is said to have made a meaningful return to work.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has said that courts must use a “reasonableness” standard in determining if the employer attempted to return the employee to work as well as if the employee failed to either return to or remain at work.  The facts will vary case by case, so there is no hard and fast rule for what is reasonable or unreasonable.  Some situations will be very clear, such as a national company telling an employee that due to their injury, the only job the company can provide is in another state.  Clearly, it would be reasonable for an injured worker to decline such an offer and that case would not involve a meaningful return to work.

Another aspect of the meaningful return to work issue is when an employee’s wages are reduced when they are brought back to work after an injury.  If an injured worker was making $15.50 per hour before he/she got hurt, and due to the injury the employer brought the worker back to a different position in the company that paid less per hour, that worker has not made a meaningful return to work.  Salaried employees can face similar situations.  There are some wage reduction situations that are a bit trickier.  For instance, last year I resolved a case for a worker who, before his injury, worked a considerable amount of his weekly hours earning “catastrophe pay” on top of his salary.  After he was released from his doctor, he was limited to a desk job.  While his salary stayed the same, he lost out on that catastrophe pay, which effectively cut his post-injury total wages in half.  We were able to successfully argue that he had not made a meaningful return to work.

Because a meaningful return to work analysis is very fact dependent, it is important to have an attorney before you get released from your doctor to make sure your rights are properly protected.  The determination of whether or not you made a meaningful return to work can make a big difference in the amount of money you receive.  If you’ve been injured at work, give us a call.