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Workers' Compensation FAQ

How Does Working Affect My Workers' Compensation Disability Benefits?

If you are receiving benefits from workers' compensation for a disability, the effect of going back to work will depend on the type of benefit involved and the laws in your state. Although the details of each state's workers' compensation plans vary, there are characteristics that most plans share in common.

There are two major categories of disability benefits: temporary and permanent. Temporary benefits are given when an employee needs to be away from work for a short period of time for medical attention or recovery. These benefits are intended to be temporary and expire when the employee returns to work. Permanent disability benefits are given when the employee will never fully recover from their injury and therefore, their future earning potential is affected. The amount of the benefit reflects future lost wages (the difference between what the person would have earned and what they are able to earn with the disability). In cases where the employee is unable to do any work as a result of their injury, the individual would receive total disability benefits (these can be temporary or permanent depending on how long the disability prevents the person from working). This amount is generally calculated considering what the employee was able to earn before his or her injury.

When a person returns to work, temporary disability benefits are terminated, since there is no need to compensate the person for lost wages since they are now able to work. In some states, the mere fact that the person returns to their former position would be enough to end the disability benefits, but other states require a letter from the doctor saying that an employee is able to return to full duty.

Total disability benefits are given when an employee is considered unable to do any work. Therefore, if the employee returns to work or finds a new job they will be unable to collect benefits. In general, if the person resumes working their benefits will terminate. Different states use different standards to determine when benefits will end. Some states will ask whether the person is capable of finding sustained gainful employment while other states will require that the person actually has an opportunity to perform a gainful and suitable occupation. The question is not just whether or not the person is capable of performing at a job but whether the person actually has a present opportunity for employment, such as a job offer.

Individuals who receive permanent disability benefits generally receive an amount that is based on their previous earnings and compensates them for future lost wages. The idea is that the employee may be able to find another job but they may not be able to earn the same wage. If an employee is receiving benefits and ends up finding a job that pays the same wage or more, their disability benefits will generally not terminate. In general, fluctuations in the amount that the employee earns will not cause his or her benefits to be reduced or discontinued. This includes reductions in salary as well. If the employee earns less than expected then the amount of disability benefits is not increased. The amount of the benefit is calculated considering the effect of the disability on employment so if the disabling condition doesn't change then the amount of the benefits generally shouldn't either.

The effect of returning to work, whether in your former position or to a new job, will vary from state to state. An employee who is being paid workers compensation for future lost earnings or who is totally disabled should use caution before making major changes in their employment status. These changes could affect their benefits. These individuals should also consider that they may have a duty to report changes in their employment to the company through which they obtained workers' compensation or to the insurer who is paying the benefits. An employee who fails to do this may find that they are responsible for reimbursing workers' compensation for any excessive payments made. The financial stakes in these cases can be high so a worker in this situation may want to consult an attorney before going back to work. An attorney may also be able to inform the employee of other options available to them such as applying for social security disability benefits.

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