An on-the-job injury is stressful for a whole host of reasons. Aside from the physical pain you might be experiencing, you probably require a variety of medical appointments, surgeries, and treatments. You’re likely also worried about the time you need to take off work and what your employment status will be when you return.
If you file a workers’ compensation claim for a legitimate, job-related injury, your employer’s insurance company is required to pay for certain expenses. These include:
- Medical treatment (doctor or hospital visits, surgery, prescription medications, etc.)
- Ongoing physical or occupational therapy
- Lost wages (resulting from time off because of the accident or illness) and some benefits to cover future loss of earning capacity
Can your employer fire you for filing a workers’ compensation claim?
Simply put, no.
Your Arizona employer can’t fire you strictly because you filed a workers’ compensation claim. However, your employer can terminate you while you’re receiving workers’ compensation benefits. Arizona law doesn’t protect you from being fired during an absence under workers’ compensation if there’s a legal reason.
Legal rights of at-will employees
An at-will employee has no contract or agreement that specifies the length of employment. It also means that both the employer and the employee have the right to terminate employment at any time, without notice.
In Arizona, an employer can fire an employee for any reason (or no clear reason) as long as it’s not illegal. If you’re an at-will employee, your employer can fire you while you’re receiving workers’ compensation benefits, and they don’t really need to provide you a reason.
In Arizona, as well as most other states, there are 3 exceptions to when an at-will employee can be terminated:
- Retaliation or discrimination (public policy violations)
- Breach of written or implied contract
- Breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing (broken promise of fair treatment)
Retaliatory termination (retaliation)
An employer can’t fire you out of retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim, but it can be hard to prove that’s why you were fired. If you believe your termination was in retaliation, you’ll need evidence to prove there was no other reason why you would be fired.
For example, if your personnel file includes only glowing performance reviews, you have emails from your supervisor praising your work, or there are other specific instances of feedback that would suggest your value as an employee, that would be worthwhile evidence to present.
Often, an employer who is guilty of retaliation has fired an employee for one of these reasons:
- Taking advantage of a legal right, like voting
- Filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits
- Refusing to engage in illegal activity
- Reporting the employer for illegal activity (i.e. acting as a whistleblower)
If your work-related injury has left you with a disability that prevents you from performing your job, your employer has a right to terminate your employment.
However, your employer has an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations if doing so would allow you to continue to do your job.
Reasonable accommodations are modifications or adjustments to the work environment. The U.S. Department of Labor provides these examples of reasonable accommodations:
- Physical changes like ramps, accessible restrooms, or ergonomic workstations
- Job restructuring, including part-time or modified work schedules
- Assistive technologies like accessible software, screen readers, videophone communication equipment, etc.
- Sign language interpreters, closed-captioning, materials in Braille or large print
- Allowing a service animal at work or other policy changes
Your employer might have provisions for helping an employee return to work after an injury by offering an alternate position that’s within the employee’s capability if it’s not possible to make accommodations to their original job.
If you and your employer signed an employment contract when you were hired, it might have a section about workers’ compensation.
A valid employment contract should include whether your job is protected when receiving workers’ compensation benefits. If you’re terminated for a reason that’s not specified in the contract, you might have a claim against your employer for breach of contract.
What’s an implied contract?
A contract that’s implied doesn’t exist in writing. In other words, it’s an understanding between you and your employer that would lead you to have certain reasonable beliefs about your employment.
For example, if your employer has made comments about what you’ll be doing for the company in 5 years, or there are comments in an evaluation or as part of a promotion that would suggest that the expectation is for you to remain employed for the long term, that could be an implied contract.
If your employer terminates your employment following an injury even though you believe there’s an implied contract, it’s breach of contract just like it would be for a written contract.
Eric worked for ABC Widgetmakers for 15 years as a marketing specialist. The company employed between 40 and 50 people. His role was to develop marketing plans, create social media content and graphic design elements, buy advertising, and perform related tasks. His immediate supervisor, the VP of marketing, would often tell him that he was “made for” this job. He had a history of stellar employee reviews and had won an Employee of the Month recognition several times.
The VP also told Eric that she would be retiring within 2 years and that he was in line for her position when the time came.
One day, Eric was about to leave work and tripped over a cord that ran from another employee’s desk workstation to a nearby power outlet on the wall. Eric broke both wrists and several bones in each hand.
Because of the severity of damage to his wrists, Eric required 2 surgeries and was unable to work for 6 months. He wanted to return to work, but it would take a while for him to be able to type on a standard keyboard, which was the majority of how he did his job.
Eric filed a workers’ compensation claim to cover the costs of the surgeries, physical therapy, related treatments and devices necessary during his recovery, and benefits for his lost work time.
Once he was healed enough to return to work, he emailed the VP to advise her of his plan and return date, and she responded that his employment with ABC Widgetmakers was terminated. Because of the length of his recovery, the company had hired another marketing specialist and he would no longer have a job.
If Eric were to pursue a claim against ABC Widgetmakers for breach of contract, the court might find that his at-will employment was an implied contract because the VP told him that she expected him to take her job when she retired. That verbal contract established a mutual understanding that Eric would be employed with the company for the long term and that he would either remain in his current position or be promoted to a higher one. Taking time off for his job-related injury is not just cause for him to be terminated, even if they had to hire another marketing specialist.
What the company should’ve done was hire a temporary or contract-based marketing specialist to fill the gap in Eric’s absence, but held his job or a similar one open for him to return.
Exceptions to termination rules for at-will employees
There are exceptions to every rule. The laws that prohibit firing an at-will employee after a job-related injury must also be fair to an employer. There are reasons why an employer may legally terminate an employee who is receiving workers’ compensation benefits:
- If it’s a very small business that can’t function without the employee, the employer would be permitted to hire a new person if there’s no other option and the business would suffer without that role being filled.
- If the employee returns to work but their job performance isn’t the same quality as it had been before the injury.
- The employee doesn’t have the physical capability to perform the job.
- There isn’t another position that would accommodate the employee’s new physical capacity after an injury.
- Making accommodations to the workspace would be an unreasonable financial hardship to the employer.
What to do if you were fired after filing a workers’ compensation claim
As you can see, there are a lot of factors involved if your employment was terminated after a workers’ compensation claim or job-related injury.
Fortunately, you don’t need to handle this on your own. Find an Arizona workers’ compensation lawyer who understands employment law inside and out. The workers’ compensation lawyer may refer you to an employment rights attorney.