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Workers' Compensation Law and the ADA

The purpose of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is to prevent employers from discriminating against current or prospective employees based on disability. On the other hand, state Workers’ Compensation laws are designed to provide a mechanism for the prompt and fair settlement of employee claims against their employers for occupational injuries and sickness.

The ADA and Workers’ Compensation laws generally do not conflict. However, when an employee seeks relief under both sets of laws, certain complications can arise. To address these issues, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued written “Enforcement Guidance” on the ADA and how it may impact Workers’ Compensation laws.

A Work-Related Injury May Not Be a “Disability”

An “injured” employee eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits is not necessarily “disabled” for the purposes of ADA protection. Under the ADA a “disability” may be one of three things:

  1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity;
  2. A record of such an impairment; or
  3. Being regarded as having such an impairment.

In other words, an employee that suffers a work-related injury or impairment might be entitled to receive Workers’ Compensation benefits, but that injury may not rise to the level of “substantially limiting a major life activity,” and so would not qualify for ADA protection.

An Injury May Become “Regarded as” a Disability

Suppose an employee suffers a minor back injury on the job. If the injury is temporary and does not substantially limit a major life activity, it is not also an ADA disability. However, if the employer refuses to let the injured employee return to his position at work, the employer has then effectively “regarded” the employee as “having such an impairment,” or disability, bringing the injury within the ADA definition. In such a case, the employer’s refusal to allow the employee to return to his job will likely violate the ADA.

Thus, although an applicable state Workers’ Compensation statute may not require the employer to allow the injured employee to return to work, the ADA might. Accordingly, the employer’s treatment of the injured employee could create liability against the employer based on both a Workers’ Compensation claim and the ADA.

Making Pre-Hiring Inquiries That Satisfy Both Workers’ Comp Laws and the ADA

Since the ADA was passed in 1990, the EEOC and the courts have attempted to clarify the various interactions between Workers’ Compensation laws and the ADA. In 1996, the EEOC issued a set of “guidelines” to describe several questions and answers about the relationship between the two sets of laws.

For example, when hiring employees, an employer might wish to ask applicants whether they already have existing occupational injuries or Workers’ Compensation claims in an effort to be mindful of Workers’ Compensation costs. However, this inquiry might conflict with the ADA’s prohibition on discriminating against prospective employees due to a disability. The EEOC guidelines state that an employer may make some Workers’ Compensation-type inquiries of applicants that will also satisfy the ADA, provided some requirements are met.

Any pre-hiring Workers’ Compensation related inquiries must be:

  1. Asked after a conditional offer of employment is made but can be asked before actual employment has begun; and
  2. Asked of entering employees of the same job category.

If these requirements are met, the employer may inquire about prior Workers’ Compensation claims or work-related injuries or may require medical exams to obtain information about the existence or nature of the prior work injury.

Significance of Distinguishing Between Workers’ Compensation Laws and the ADA

The distinction between Workers’ Compensation laws and the ADA is significant because, if the ADA applies, it might impose some heightened responsibilities on an employer. Once the ADA applies, the employer’s treatment of the employee must conform to ADA standards.

For example, an employee “injured” on the job may need to take leave for recovery. Workers’ Compensation laws may allow the employer to require that the employee reach a “full recovery” before returning to work so as not to exacerbate the injury. However, if the employee is also considered “disabled” under the ADA, the employer may not be able to require full recovery. Instead, the ADA requires the employer to make “reasonable accommodations” for a disabled employee who can still perform the essential functions of the job. Reasonable accommodations might include installing a ramp for a wheelchair, providing a returning employee with “light” or modified duties or hours, or assigning the employee to a temporary new position. A reasonable accommodation must be made for a “disabled” employee unless the employer can show it would impose undue hardship.

Conflict of Workers’ Compensations Laws and the ADA

Most Workers’ Compensation laws are generally “no fault” laws and contain provisions which prevent employees from bringing lawsuits against their employer or third parties for occupational injuries. As such, Workers’ Compensation claims are typically the only recourse available to employees for their occupational injuries.

Once an “injury” is also considered a “disability,” the ADA applies in addition to the Workers’ Compensation statute. The disabled employee may thus also enjoy the ADA’s additional protection to be free from discrimination based on the disability. In the event there is a conflict between state Workers’ Compensation laws and the ADA, the ADA controls. State laws, however, typically do not bar an employee from filing an ADA claim or complaint in conjunction with a Workers’ Compensation claim.

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