Returning to Work After a Workplace Injury: Maximum Medical Improvement and Suitable Employment

Returning to Work After a Workplace InjurySuffering an injury at work can be a stressful experience. Workers’ compensation is there to support you financially while you heal and receive medical treatment. Eventually, you may be deemed ready to return to work, which is a significant step in the recovery process.

However, you may need some accommodations once you get back to work, or may find that you’ve been cleared to work even though you’re not 100% healed. So today, we want to talk a bit about what returning to your job might look like, and what your rights are under North Carolina’s workers’ compensation laws.

What is Maximum Medical Improvement?

In North Carolina, Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) is a term used in the context of workers’ compensation to determine the point at which an injured worker’s condition has reached its maximum level of improvement. MMI indicates that the injured worker’s medical condition has stabilized and is not expected to improve further, despite the potential need for ongoing medical treatment or management.

It’s important to note that reaching MMI doesn’t necessarily mean that the injured worker has fully recovered or no longer requires medical care. Some individuals may still need ongoing therapy, medication, or even future surgeries. MMI simply indicates that the injured worker’s condition has reached a point of stability and further significant improvement is unlikely.

Once an injured worker has reached MMI, the treating physician can assign permanent restrictions on the types of physical job duties the worker can perform going forward. These restrictions help determine the worker’s ability to return to work and the accommodations or limitations that may be necessary.

Reaching MMI is a significant milestone in the workers’ compensation process, as it often triggers a transition in the evaluation of suitable employment and the calculation of benefits. It marks the point at which the focus shifts from medical treatment and recovery to determining the worker’s long-term work capabilities and vocational options.

What is “suitable employment”?

Once you are deemed healthy enough to return to work, your employer must offer you suitable employment if you are not well enough to return to fully working your previous job.

Here’s the legal language of the law:

The term “suitable employment” means employment offered to the employee or, if prohibited by the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1324a, employment available to the employee that

  1. prior to reaching maximum medical improvement is within the employee’s work restrictions, including rehabilitative or other noncompetitive employment with the employer of injury approved by the employee’s authorized health care provider or
  2. after reaching maximum medical improvement is employment that the employee is capable of performing considering the employee’s preexisting and injury-related physical and mental limitations, vocational skills, education, and experience and is located within a 50‑mile radius of the employee’s residence at the time of injury or the employee’s current residence if the employee had a legitimate reason to relocate since the date of injury.

No one factor shall be considered exclusively in determining suitable employment.

Here’s what that means in plain language:

If you’ve not yet reached your MMI, your employer has to offer you work that falls within the restrictions set by your doctor. For example, say you worked in a warehouse, loading and unloading products from trucks. If you are on a “light duty” restriction where you can’t lift anything heavier than, say, 15 lbs, your employer needs to find another role for you while you’re on that restriction – like doing inventory, perhaps, or handling some kind of data entry.

It is important to note that the offered employment does not have to be a traditional job and may include work arrangements created by the employer. However, if the position pays significantly less than the worker’s pre-injury earnings, you may be eligible for supplemental payments under the Worker’s Compensation Act to bring your earnings closer to your pre-injury level.

How does suitable employment change after reaching MMI?

After reaching MMI, the definition of suitable employment changes. It now entails a job that meets specific criteria, including being within 50 miles of the employee’s home, aligning with the doctor’s restrictions, considering the worker’s unrelated health conditions, and taking into account their work skills, education, and experience. Unlike the period before reaching MMI, those “created” positions are no longer considered suitable employment after reaching this stage. The intention is to prevent employers from creating indefinite positions solely to avoid providing worker’s compensation benefits.

How can a Charlotte workers’ compensation attorney help me?

At Price, Petho & Associates, we understand the challenges you may face when returning to work after an on-site injury, particularly if your employer fails to provide appropriate work accommodations. That’s why we encourage you to call us the minute you suffer a work-related injury or illness; if we are involved in your case from the start, we can help you at every step.

One of those steps is representing you if your employer refuses to comply with the laws. If there’s no way for your employer to make accommodations for you, and working under normal conditions would negatively affect your recovery, then legally, you cannot return to work – and you should still be able to keep your benefits. However, the insurance company is likely to make a fuss about this, so if your benefits get cut off, we can represent you as you seek to get your benefits back.

We can also help you if your employer or the insurance company offers you a settlement. Just like in a personal injury case, workers’ compensation settlements are not so cut-and-dry, and insurance companies are always looking for a way to keep the money to themselves. So if you ARE offered a settlement, don’t agree to it before we’ve had a chance to review it.

With our experience in workers’ compensation laws and regulations, you can rest easier knowing that Price, Petho & Associates is dedicated to protecting your rights and helping you secure the accommodations you need for a smooth and effective return to work. If you believe your rights to workers’ compensation accommodations are being infringed upon, call us at our offices in Charlotte, Rockingham, and Rutherfordton, or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation.