workerscompjudgeReturning to work after recovering from an injury can be a difficult process. You may not feel ready, or qualified, or even physically able to complete the duties of your position.

In the state of New Jersey, once your doctor approves you for light duty work and your employer makes an acceptable offer, you are no longer eligible for disability benefits. On the other hand, if you are not approved to work until you reach maximum medical improvement, your disability benefits will end at that point.

The label of “maximum medical improvement” does not necessarily mean you have fully healed or are as healthy as you were prior to the injury. It means that you have reached the point that ongoing medical care will not longer be helpful to your specific condition. Many will have no choice but to return to work with a disability. Some will return to their employer in the previous position with reasonable accommodation, while others will need to find a light duty or different position due to their condition.

Following is two examples of recent New Jersey cases that presented findings on disability and special accommodation standards.

Employees Must Perform Essential Job Duties With Reasonable Accommodations

Joe Wilkerson injured his hand while working as a mill operator for Boomerang Tube, LLC in December 2010 (Wilkerson v. Boomerang Tube, LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146695, E.D. Texas October 15, 2014.) He returned to work only a week later and reinjured the same hand. He returned to work again a few days later after emergency treatment and had no issues until a few months later.

In April 2011 he injured his hand again, this time requiring surgery. While waiting for the surgery to take place, Wilkerson was approved for light duty work that did not require the use of his injured hand and his employer was accomodating.

At work, however, Wilkerson had a dispute with his supervisor over what job duties he could safely complete. He felt that his alleged assigned duties could cause additional harm to his injured hand.

His employer, however, claimed that Wilkerson was allegedly assigned to clean offices with one hand and was simply unhappy with these duties. According to the supervisor, Wilkerson refused the cleaning duties, was insubordinate, and decided to leave for the day. The supervisor then fired Wilkerson for insubordination.

Wilkerson filed a lawsuit against his employer, claiming discrimination based on a disability. He claimed he could have completed the essential job duties of his position as mill operator with one of the following accommodations: assistance from his supervisor, assignment of a trainee, a short leave of absence, or some job restructuring. He also stated he was willing to transfer to a position in the storeroom or complete cleaning duties on walls and fixtures only.

The Court found none of these accommodations to be reasonable because they all relieve Wilkerson essential job functions as a mill operator. The Court held it was unreasonable to require an employer to use other employees to perform the essential functions of Wilkerson’s job; the purpose of reasonable accommodation is to allow the disabled employee to perform their job. The Court also held that they can not require the employer to create a new job solely for Wilkerson’s benefit. Finally, contrary to New Jersey law, the Court found that a short leave of absence is not reasonable because it would not help Wilkerson perform the essential job functions.

Wilerson’s lawsuit was dismissed because he could not prove that he could complete his essential job function with any reasonable accommodation.

Employers Must Engage in Interactive Dialogue with Employees Requesting Reasonable Accommodations

Debra Kauffman suffered a uterine prolapse cystocele condition and had surgery to improve it while working at Mason Point Nursing Home in December 2010 (Kauffman v. Petersen Health Care, VII, LLC, 769 F.3d 958 7th Cir. 2014.) She returned to work after eight weeks with a restriction against pushing more than 20 pounds and eventually increased to 50 pounds.

Kauffman requested to be relieved of the duty of pushing residents in wheelchairs as a reasonable accommodation. The administrator denied the request and told her, “We just don’t allow people to work with restrictions; and you have a restriction on here . . .  As long as you’ve got the restriction we can’t employ you.”

The district court ruled in favor of the nursing home and Kauffman appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court. This Court ruled in favor of Kauffman, holding that the employer must engage in an interactive dialogue with an employee when they request accommodation because of a disability.

The Court also stated that the EEOC does not approve of 100% healed policies. The judge suggested a retrial that determines whether pushing residents in wheelchairs is an essential job duty and if a battery-operated wheelchair may assist Kauffman.

A New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Can Answer Your Questions

If you need a skilled lawyer or have any questions about the workers’ compensation process, from initial injury to returning to work, we welcome you to contact The Hayes Firm today. We are a free lawyer finding service with an extensive network of experienced, hand-picked local lawyers. Contact us today for your free consultation.