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Work injury accommodation best done with your input

Some federal jobs are more dangerous than others. All of them carry risks. When workplace injuries do occur, the first priority is getting necessary care and obtaining the benefits that are due under applicable workers’ compensation law. Clearing that hurdle isn’t something an injured worker should have to attempt alone. Support of an experienced attorney can help.

Presuming the benefits challenge is met, the next step, hopefully, is getting the employee back to work — even if it’s in some restricted capacity. Obviously, this requires management to make some determinations about what accommodations are feasible. But as one recent legal case shows, it’s not a decision the boss can make unilaterally. The injured worker deserves to have a say on what happens, as well.

The matter involves a Department of Natural Resources worker in Iowa who was terminated from his job. According to the record, he suffered a back injury in 2011 and took a leave of absence. He returned to work at the start of 2012 on light duty and gradually resumed most of his old tasks, though he required help from co-workers for heavier lifting.

Nine months after his return, the DNR ordered functional capacity checks on the worker. Workers’ compensation administrators drew up a list of suggested restrictions, including a ban on squatting, and asked if the DNR could accommodate them. The agency consulted with human resources, legal and other advisers, and the worker’s supervisor, but never the worker himself. In the end, the agency said the accommodations represented an undue hardship and fired the worker.

He sued and a jury found that the DNR had discriminated against him on the basis of disability. It awarded him $900,000. The decision was also upheld on appeal. The appeals court said the law obliges employers to actively engage with the claimant when making these kinds of decisions, even if it’s inconvenient, and that the DNR failed to do that.

Though this case involves a state government worker, the elements of the case reflect issues that may apply at the federal level. It depends on the circumstances of a given case. As such, it reinforces that the protection of worker rights is served by working with an experienced attorney.

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