By Joseph M. Wilson, Jr., Attorney at Law
The workers’ compensation laws in North Carolina were revised in 2011 to include several new provisions that impact injured workers. This legislation is known as “An Act Protecting and Putting North Carolina Back to Work by Reforming the Workers’ Compensation Act” and was enacted into law June 24, 2011. Two of the most significant changes relate to reinstatement, or how and when workers return to work, and vocational rehabilitation.
In an ideal situation, when an injured worker has reached maximum medical improvement (MMI), he or she is able to return to his/her former job at the same wage. However, if the injury has resulted in partial disability such that the worker is able to return to work but is no longer able to perform his or her previous job, there are a number of things that may happen:
- The employer may offer the reinstated worker a job that he or she is able to perform with the existing disability;
- If no suitable work exists with the current employer, the employee may be given job placement assistance to help in finding another job elsewhere;
- The employee may qualify for vocational rehabilitation services.
The biggest challenge facing the reinstated worker is that the legislation does not take into account the wages that the employee was earning prior to the work-related injury. What does this mean to the injured worker? As an example, let’s assume that you had an injury to your spine while you were working as a machine operator earning $15 per hour. This job required the ability to turn and bend to operate the machine. Assuming that the injury to your spine will prevent you from working in a job that entails turning and bending, your employer may offer you a position as an office worker at a pay rate of $12 per hour. This pay is only 80% of what you were earning before, but the change in the law does not address this. If you refuse the job offer, your workers’ compensation benefits could be terminated.
The Vocational Rehabilitation Provision
In the example above, the new pay rate was 80% of the prior rate, but what happens if the new job offered pays only $8 per hour? There is a provision that provides for vocational training when the employee is unable to earn a minimum of 75% of the prior pay. If the new job were offered at $8 per hour, the employee would then be eligible for training that could lead to a new position at a higher rate of pay. There are no guarantees that this would happen, or that the position would be with the current employer. In addition, the expectation is that the reinstated employee would accept the $8/hour job and continue to work at this job while completing vocational training.
Every workers’ compensation case is unique. If you have questions about your situation, you may wish to speak to a North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney about your rights.