Many employers that attempt to manage workers’ compensation claims and expenses offer temporary light duty work to employees whose injuries prevent them from performing their regular job functions. The Department of Labor has long taken the position that eligible employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act can elect FMLA leave instead of accepting a light duty assignment. Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Georgia) held that payment of workers’ compensation benefits did not end an employer’s obligation to offer an injured employee FMLA leave.
In Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Services, LLC, the employee injured her knee on the job and missed 11 days of work before returning in a light duty position. While the employer initiated workers’ compensation coverage for the accident, it did not treat the absence as FMLA leave or advise the employee of her right to take FMLA leave. Her doctor subsequently released her for regular duty without restrictions, although she was prescribed ongoing physical therapy. However, the plaintiff failed the employer’s return-to-work essential functions test and was subsequently terminated. She sued, alleging interference with the FMLA’s leave requirements.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for the employer, remanding the case for jury trial. In its decision, the court stated that handling workplace injuries consistent with workers’ compensation requirements does not absolve the employer of leave obligations under the FMLA. The employer could not offer light duty without also making the plaintiff aware of her alternative right to take FMLA leave. Had the employee elected leave instead of light duty, she may have been able to recover further and pass the essential functions test.
Employers should understand that FMLA and workers’ compensation leaves run concurrently. Before offering light duty assignments to employees injured on the job, employers should also provide notice of FMLA rights, including the ability to take leave instead of accepting a light duty assignment. Rejecting the light duty offer may result in suspension of workers’ compensation disability payments, but it does not give the employer the right to terminate employment prior to expiration of the FMLA leave period.