Can I turn down light-duty work offered by my California employer?

Question:

I work for a California catering company and injured my back on the job. I’ve been off work for six months while getting treatment. My doctor isn’t sure if I’ll be able to return to my position as server because it requires me to stand on my feet all day and do some heavy lifting. I talked to my boss, and she said that if I’m not able to work as a server, I can do administrative work in the office. I’m not really interested in doing office work, though. Can I turn the office work down?

Answer:

One of the goals of the workers’ compensation system is to get injured employees back to work whenever possible. For that reason, California passed a law to create a financial incentive for employers to offer modified or alternative work to employees who could no longer perform their usual positions.

For injuries that occurred in 2005 to 2012, when an employer of a certain size (those with 50 or more employees) made an offer of modified or alternative work, the worker’s permanent disability benefits were automatically reduced by 15%. On the other hand, if the employer failed to make an offer of modified or alternative work, the worker’s permanent disability benefits were automatically increased by 15%. This was true regardless of whether the worker accepted or rejected the offer.

In recent years, California has done away with this rule. For injuries in 2013 and on, a worker’s permanent disability benefits are not increased or decreased by 15% depending on whether the employer made an offer of modified or alternative work. In other words, you won’t see a cut to your permanent disability benefits because your employer has offered you the administrative work.

However, turning down an offer of modified or alternative work may make you ineligible for supplemental job displacement benefits. Supplemental job displacement benefits are available to workers to pay for the cost of schooling or training programs so that they can enter into new lines of work. Workers cannot receive these benefits if they reject offers of modified or alternative work that meet all of the following requirements:

  • The work must last at least 12 months.
  • The work must meet your medical restrictions.
  • The pay must be at least 85% of what you made in your previous position.
  • The worksite must be within a reasonable commuting distance.

You should check with your boss to get more details about the administrative position, including how long it will last, how much it pays, and what your day-to-day tasks will be. If the work meets the above requirements and you turn it down, you won’t be able to get payments to cover any schooling or training that you might need to enter a new job.

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