We have an employee who has been out with a work-related back injury for more than six months. We have not received any indication from her doctor about when she will be able to return. Must we keep her on workers’ compensation leave status indefinitely? Do we have to indefinitely hold open her job?
The short answer is “no.” Minnesota workers’ compensation law does not require indefinite leave for an employee who has suffered a work injury.
An employee on an indefinite workers’ compensation leave who has exhausted any FMLA leave may be lawfully terminated and has no absolute right to reinstatement to her current position at the time she is deemed medically able to return to work.
That being said, workers’ compensation law requires employers to undertake a fact-based analysis similar to the ADA’s reasonable accommodation analysis. When an employer has been provided a definite return-to-work date, even one that is fairly distant, it must analyze whether it can accommodate the employee with an extended leave of absence and keeping her position open or whether this would be an undue hardship.
Minnesota courts have generally held that it is not reasonable to accommodate an indefinite, lengthy leave when the employee cannot establish that she will ever be able to return to work or when that might occur. If terminated, however, such an employee should be free to reapply for a job once she is physically able to return to work (with or without a reasonable accommodation).
Beware possible legal exposure for unlawful retaliation against an employee for asserting workers’ comp rights. Make sure you are acting consistently with other leave of absence situations, including leaves necessitated for reasons other than workers’ compensation covered injuries.
Minnesota Work Comp Law
While employers aren’t legally required to hold an injured worker’s job open indefinitely, they need to act reasonably wherever possible. The author is right to point out that employers should be aware of possible exposure to legal action for retaliatory discharge if they aren’t very careful when eliminating the job of an injured worker.
I would add that the employer should pay specific attention to the timing of events. We sue employers who illegally fire people that have a workers’ compensation claim. One of the very first things we look at when evaluating a case is the temporal relationship between the termination and the employee’s injury or diagnosis/prognosis change. In other words, how much time has passed between a work comp “event” and the firing? If the employer decides to fire someone soon after they get hurt or file a work comp claim (or have a medical procedure, a status change, etc.) a good argument might be made that they are retaliating against the injured worker.
The law is attempting to ensure fairness. On the one hand, a business can’t be expected to hold a position open forever without knowing if it will ever be filled. On the other hand, an employee shouldn’t be punished for getting hurt on the job.