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What is a “light duty” job offer in workers’ compensation?

Man at desk frustrated by light duty job offer

You’ve been off work after an industrial injury in Washington State. You’re receiving time loss benefits and getting treatment from your doctor, who continues to tell you that you can’t return to work yet because of your injuries or conditions.

 Then, you get a letter from your employer that looks something like this:

“Great News! We have found a light duty job for you here at the BlackLungCompany Coal Mine, and you start tomorrow at 9:00 am! P.S. If you do not accept this job, your time loss payments will end, and we will close your claim.”

Now you have some questions. 

  • Can they force me back to work even though my doctor says I can’t? 
  • Do I have any say in this? 
  • Can they really shut off my time loss?

Unfortunately, the answer to those questions may depend on how the offer was communicated, what the “light duty job” entails, and whether you’ve taken the necessary steps to prevent your employer from manipulating the system to save costs.

What does “light duty” mean?

Let’s break this down a little. For starters, what is light duty work?

The Washington L&I website says, “Medical restrictions may prevent you from returning to your regular job after a workplace injury. However, it is possible to return to work in a different, light duty capacity while still receiving medical benefits. Research shows the sooner you return to work, the more likely you’ll preserve future income and health.” 

That seems reasonable enough. Then they continue, “Returning to work as quickly as possible is a team effort between you, your doctor, and your employer…” 

That sentence seems pretty logical, too. If my doctor is involved, I should be good to go, right?

L&I then says, “Light duty doesn’t have to be directly related to the work you were performing at the time of injury.”

Hmm, let’s stop here for a second. What does that really mean? My doctor says I can only lift ten pounds and can’t stand for more than thirty minutes at a time. L&I says my doctor has to approve the light duty work, and there’s no way I can be a coal miner if I can only lift ten pounds, so what are they going to have me do?

This is where things get weird. You take another look at the employer’s light duty job offer and see that they aren’t asking for you to return as a coal miner—you’ll be brought back as a sign holder. Your job is to show up at a busy intersection 20 miles from the mine and hold a sign that says “—buy one lump, get one free!” And they’ve even taken your standing restriction into consideration since they’re so thoughtful; you’ll have a stool to sit on while you hold the sign.

This might sound far-fetched, but—other than the employer being a coal mine—the rest is a true story. Other instances of ridiculous light duty jobs are sitting for 8 hours per day watching safety videos (in a room where other employees are working and snickering) and answering phones that never ring because the employer has an offsite answering service.

Employers often use tactics like these to force an early return to work because they want to save costs, and if your doctor approves the light duty job, you may have to do it for a while. Check out our blog, Beware that light duty job offer, for more information. 

Light duty work is temporary (unlike a modified duty job offer), and your employer may ask you to do things outside your doctor’s restrictions. You should always carry a copy of your most recent Activity Prescription Form that states your restrictions, so if that happens, you can remind your employer of your doctor-imposed limitations. 

A modified duty job is one where an employer has stated that they can accommodate your restrictions permanently. This option requires a few more steps to show that the job is viable and expected to last into the future. However, in both cases (light and modified duty jobs), you have the right to discuss them with your doctor BEFORE he or she signs off. If you didn’t get that chance, call an attorney right away.

What are my workers’ comp rights?

If your employer is attempting to have you return to work in a job different from the one you were doing when you were injured, there are some guidelines they must follow.

  • First, the job offer must be communicated in writing* to your doctor, along with a copy for you at the same time (not just after your doctor has signed it).
  • Second, the job offer must contain information sufficiently describing the work available with the employer in terms that will enable the provider to relate the physical activities of the job to your injury/condition/disability. This includes information on the physical requirements of the job, as well as the frequency and length of time the employer expects you to perform the tasks.
  • Next, the job offer must contain a start date, rate of pay, and any information on special training, equipment, or clothing that the job requires. Unfortunately, the law does not require that the light or modified duty job match your rate of pay; however, if the rate of pay is less than the amount you were making when you were injured, you may be entitled to Loss of Earning Power payments. 

Once you have begun working the light or modified duty job, the employer must stay within your doctor’s limitations and not ask you to do tasks outside the doctor’s approval. If the work you’re doing ends, or the employer refuses to stay within your restrictions, your time loss payments may be resumed—but you have to be aware of your restrictions and call attention to any violations by your employer. If you have questions about this process, contact an attorney as soon as possible, as time may not be on your side.

What are your rights if you’ve just received a written* job offer from your employer? 

You (and your doctor) have the right to know the following information:

  • Job duties and tasks the job requires
  • Tools and equipment required to perform the job
  • How often and how long you would perform the tasks
  • Physical demands of the tasks
  • List of accommodations to the tasks, if appropriate
  • Salary or benefit changes

*Light and modified duty job offers must be communicated in writing.

If you’ve received a job offer that lacks these things, or if the first time you’ve received a job offer, it has already been signed by your doctor, call an attorney right away. 

Get help from a workers’ compensation lawyer

Returning to light duty work may actually be good for you—it can help prevent atrophy and can be physically and even psychologically therapeutic. The problem is that it can also be a tool employers use to save costs, embarrass injured workers, and ultimately force them into quitting the job or abandoning their claims before getting the treatment they deserve.

If you’ve been presented with a light duty job offer and find yourself confused (it’s confusing on purpose) or have a question, the experienced workers’ compensation attorneys at Carlisle + Byers are here to assist you. Schedule a free consultation today.