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

Injured employees may lose additional workers’ comp benefits if their employers offer them work that accommodates their physical limitations.

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 a 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:

You can turn down the offer of administrative work, but you may lose the right to additional benefits that are available in California for injured employees who can’t return to their former jobs. If California employees have partial permanent disability (meaning they have lasting limitations) as a result of work-related injuries that happened in 2013 or later, they will be eligible for supplemental job displacement benefits designed to help them get the skills for new jobs—unless their employers offer them regular, modified, or alternative work.

Once your doctor writes a “permanent and stationary” report saying that your condition is stable and that you can’t do the physical requirements of your former job because of your permanent partial disability, your employer may offer you modified work (meaning your old job, but without tasks that you can no longer do) or alternative work (another job that you can do). At that point, you will no longer be able to receive supplemental job displacement benefits, as long as the work offer meets the legal requirements:

  • you're able to perform all of the job tasks despite your physical limitations.
  • the job will last at least 12 months
  • the pay will be at least 85% of what you were earning (in wages and other compensation) at the time of your injury; and
  • the worksite must be within a reasonable commuting distance from your home.

(Cal. Labor Code §§ 4658.1, 4658.7 (2018).)

In your case, it sounds as if your doctor hasn’t made a final decision and written a report about your permanent limitations. Once that happens, your employer will have 60 days after receiving the physician’s report to make a formal work offer. 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 legal requirements, you won’t be eligible for the supplemental job displacement benefits.

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