In New Jersey, employers may discontinue the payment of temporary disability benefits if they offer the injured worker light duty work. The worker must accept the job offer if they have the ability to complete the essential job duties with or without reasonable accommodation. Refusal of the job offer will result in termination of temporary disability benefits. Unfortunately, the light duty job offer may include fewer hours than the employee previously worked and even pay at a lower rate than disability benefits. This is a situation becoming more and more common in the state.
Workers’ Compensation Laws in New Jersey vs. Other States
Workers’ compensation laws that govern temporary disability and other benefits differ by state and New Jersey’s laws are unique compared to others. In some states, for example, an employee that can not earn the same wages they did prior to their injury may be eligible for significant compensation. If the injured worker’s disability allows them to return to work but at a much lower rate, they can receive continued disability benefits. Note that this is only after the worker has reached maximum medical improvement as determined by the treating physician.
For example, a worker that receives $500 per week from temporary disability benefits is approved by their doctor to return to work part time. The disability allows them to earn only $200 per week. Without their disability compensation, the employee is earning significantly less than their prior wages and their disability benefits while working the maximum amount of hours permitted by their doctor. Does this seem like a fair situation? Many states do not believe so, and require by law that the remaining $300 be paid to the employee in the form of disability benefits.
New Jersey, however, does not have a law like this. The state offers an alternative, providing disability compensation based on the percentage of physical function loss after maximum medical improvement. It is becoming increasingly common in New Jersey for employees to earn less than half of their prior wages when returning to work after an injury, even when working the maximum amount of hours allowed by their doctor. It is an issue often brought to us by clients at the Hayes Firm.
A Ruling on the Light Duty Work Wage Drop
There is one case in New Jersey that may offer hope to injured workers that return to work but suffer a wage loss: Soto v. Herr’s Foods, Inc., 2012 NJ Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 4 (September 7, 2012). This was a case in the Division of Workers’ Compensation that can offer guidance, but does not set an official precedent for the issue because it is not a published decision.
In the case of Soto v. Herr’s Foods, Inc, the injured worker was approved by his doctor for light duty work. The employer made an offer of four hours sedentary work a day to increase with improved condition, which the employee was required to accept. The worker earned $976.15 per week prior to his injury, $683.31 per week while receiving disability benefits, and $329.43 per week on light duty work.
The injured worker petitioned the court for this significant reduction in wages. The Supervising Judge of Compensation Emille Cox determined that a temporarily disabled worker is entitled to the appropriate wages required by temporary disability law, when returning for light duty work as determined by the doctor. In this particular case, the injured worker was entitled to $683.31 per week from disability benefits and must receive that amount, even when returning for light duty work.
The judge stated: “…to allow [the employer] to provide minimum light duty and only pay the [injured worker] an amount less than the $683.31 to which he is entitled defeats the purpose of both the temporary disability and the light duty provisions of the workers’ compensation statute.”
Find a New Jersey Lawyer Today
Besides the case above, the state does not have any official precedent for situations of this nature and this leaves the proper solution up for negotiation. Employers and their insurance companies will most often choose the course of action that saves them the most money. Any employee on temporary disability is advised to consult with a licensed, local attorney that will look out for the best interests of the worker. Finding a lawyer that operates near you is very important because laws differ by state.
If you are an injured worker in New Jersey with questions or concerns about the workers’ compensation process, contact the Hayes Firm today. We will review your case, answer any questions, and give our recommendation for your next steps completely for free. We will also connect you with a skilled, knowledgeable attorney in the state of New Jersey if we believe your situations will benefit from further legal action. Any situation similar to the examples above are complex and will require an experienced, successful workers’ compensation attorney.