What Happens When an Employee Is Not Ready to Return to Work?

Employees who either suffer workplace injuries or who take FMLA leave are faced with a decision at some point. That is, they must choose whether or not they are ready to return to work. In many cases, once a physician gives the ok to return to work, the employee feels ready to return as well. But there may be an occasion when, although your doctor says you are fully recovered and ready to resume your work responsibilities, you may not agree. What happens then?

If the doctor says you are fit to return, your employer can require that you do so.

Generally speaking, if your treating physician has given you clearance to return to work, unless you have accrued annual or sick leave or remaining FMLA leave time that you can use, your employer can require that you return to work. This is especially true if there is no dispute that the return-to-work instructions (such as light duty) are consistent with your medical needs. Under labor law, this would be the same as requiring an employee who has not been injured or sick to return to work, even if he would prefer to stay home.

What If You Disagree with the Return to Work Assignment?

There is another situation that can arise, where you may agree that you are able to return to work, but only under certain circumstances, such as a light duty assignment. If you disagree with the return-to-work assignment approved by your doctor, what options do you have under employment law?

Typically, the first step would be to provide some documentation to support your position. This would most likely mean obtaining a second opinion or independent examination. Eventually, the employer will have to make a decision as to whether the person can do the proposed assignment. If the employee can, in fact, do the assignment, then the employer can require them to return to work.

Consider Any Return-to-Work Programs Provided by Your Employer

The good news is, your employer may offer accommodations in the form of a return-to-work program, which is meant to help employees return to work sooner after an illness or injury. Some examples of return-to-work strategies include allowing the employee to work part time or telecommute, modifying work duties, modifying schedules, and providing reasonable accommodations such as tools and resources needed to carry out their job duties.

According to an article published by the U.S. Department of Labor, such accommodations are often highly cost effective. In fact, some data suggest that more than half of these accommodations cost employers nothing. Seventy-four percent of employers who implemented accommodations rated them as either "very effective" or "extremely effective."

Other Benefits of Return-to-Work Programs

The initial purpose of most return-to-work programs was to reduce workers' compensation costs. But, it has been determined that these strategies do much more. The programs ultimately save organizations time and money, protect against loss of talented employees, and improve productivity and morale throughout the company. Encouraging employees to return to work sooner, even while still recovering, allows them to protect their income source while increasing the organization's productivity.


If you have questions about returning to work following an illness or injury, or would like to know more about your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. As you work directly with our employment law attorneys, we can help you understand your options and provide the counsel you need to make the most of your case.

Categories: Employment Law, FMLA
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