Absent the lucky few, most Wisconsin workers are considered “at-will” employees. This means absent exceptions for unlawful discrimination (e.g. race, gender, age, religion, etc.), a worker can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all. However, worker’s compensation injuries are another exception to this “at-will” presumption that makes a work injury a protected category.
Under Wisconsin’s workers’ compensation law, Wis. Stat. § 102.35(3), an employer (at time of injury) who terminates, or unreasonably refuses to rehire, an employee after a work injury is subject to a penalty of up to one year’s lost wages. The purpose behind this law is to dissuade discrimination against employees who have been injured on the job and, assuming there is work available within the worker’s restrictions, make sure the injured worker gets back to work with his former employer. This is yet another outgrowth of the bargain struck between workers and employers under Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation regime: workers do not get to sue their employers or co-workers for injuries, but they are entitled to a system of no-fault benefits and job protections.
When returning to work, there is a distinction between returning while still healing with temporary physical restrictions versus returning to work with permanent physical restrictions. An employee must provide notice to their employer of any temporary (as well as permanent) restrictions. If the employer can provide work within the temporary restrictions at the same rate of pay, no temporary disability is owed; if the employer can only provide work at lower wages or less hours, the worker is owed temporary partial disability; and, if the employer cannot provide any work, the employee is owed temporary total disability. If an employer terminates a worker while they are still healing, the worker has an unreasonable refusal to rehire claim.
When an injured worker reaches an end of healing or “healing plateau,” the treating physician may assign permanent physical restrictions along with any permanent disability percentage. If the worker is provided permanent work restrictions, they must provide the same to their employer. Under Wis. Stat. § 102.35(3), the employer must offer “suitable employment…within the employee’s physical and mental limitations.” If the worker’s permanent restrictions allow return to their same job at the time of injury, they should be offered it. However, the employer must offer any suitable position available even if different than the position the worker had at the time of the injury. Only when there is truly no work available within the worker’s restrictions can the employer refuse to rehire the injured worker. The employer, not the employee, bears the burden of proving the lack of suitable employment.
The above is not meant to suggest that there is an absolute unassailable right to return to work for the same employer following a work injury. When determining whether there is “suitable employment,” the statute allows for consideration of “the continuance in business of the employer.” This gives rise to the employer’s argument that the nature of business or economic situation dictated its refusal to rehire the injured worker, not the work injury.
Unsurprisingly, these are highly fact-dependent issues and claims. Moreover, unreasonable refusal to rehire penalties are paid by the employer, not the work comp insurance company, which means they are hotly contested and litigated. The above is only a brief snapshot and is not meant to cover all the variations that accompany return-to-work decisions after a work injury; if you have questions, do not hesitate to reach out to one of our worker’s compensation or employment law attorneys.