If you're injured on the job or develop a work-related chronic condition, you might be entitled to workers' compensation benefits. These benefits include compensation for medical care and lost wages.
But some employees worry that if they file a worker's comp case, they'll lose their job. It's a valid concern. Although it's illegal for an employer to fire you simply because you made a workers' comp claim, the fact is that once you've gone out on leave to recover from your injuries, it might be harder to get your job back.
It's illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee in any way for sustaining a work injury or filing a workers' comp claim. This means that your employer may not fire, demote, discipline, reassign, or otherwise punish you just because you filed a workers' comp claim.
If you are retaliated against in this way, you're entitled to additional compensation, either as part of your workers' comp claim or in a separate lawsuit against your employer.
Being involved in a workers' compensation case or being out on leave to recover from your work injury doesn't automatically mean your job is protected. Your employer can still fire you for a legitimate reason not related to workers' comp. And they can also fire you for your inability to perform your job duties following your injury, although workers who are considered disabled are entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In most states, workers' comp laws don't guarantee that you'll get your old job back—or that you'll be assigned to a new one—after you've gone out on temporary disability. A few states, such as Wisconsin and Oregon, do give injured workers some right to reinstatement.
Even if the law doesn't require reinstatement, however, it can be in your employer's best interest to give you your job back if you're ready and willing to return to work. This is because the sooner you return, the less the amount of workers' comp benefits you'll receive for lost wages.
Finally, keep in mind that you might have rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if your employer has 50 or more employees and you've worked there for at least 12 months. The FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for workers who have a serious medical condition, have to care for a family member with a serious medical condition.
Because most U.S. workers are employed "at will," they can be fired for any reason that is not illegal, such as discrimination or retaliation. This means that even after you've filed a workers' comp claim, you can still be fired for a reason unrelated to that claim, such as poor job performance or company-wide layoffs.
Of course, it's not always clear why an employee is fired, and employers will rarely tell you they're firing you due to your workers' comp claim. If you suspect you were retaliated against, it's important to keep all documentation related to your injury and your employment.
While employers can't fire you just because you were injured and filed a workers' comp claim, they can fire you if your injury impacts your ability to do your job in the long term.
If an employee's work injury or illness is serious enough, it might qualify as a disability under the ADA. The ADA requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to disabled workers to allow them to continue to do their jobs. For example, your employer may need to provide you with an ergonomic workstation or a reserved parking space.
But if you still can't perform your essential job duties even with those accommodations, your employer can fire you. Also, if accommodating a worker's disability would place an undue hardship on the employer (in other words, it would result in significant expense or difficulty to implement), then the employer need not provide the accommodation.
An experienced employment lawyer can help you determine how best to protect your rights if:
In these situations, you might have a claim for wrongful termination, or be entitled to compensation under state or federal laws.