Often, employees who were injured on the job fail to file a workers’ compensation claim out of fear that they will lose their jobs if they do. Fortunately, the law prohibits employers from firing a worker just because he or she filed a workers’ compensation claim. (An employee can be fired, however, while he or she has an open workers’ compensation claim, but only if an employer can supply evidence proving that the decision was unrelated to the employee’s claim.)
The fear of being fired after suffering an injury or contracting an illness at work can keep hard-working employees from obtaining appropriate medical care and benefits, and that can have lifelong repercussions. If you or a loved one is concerned about being fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim, you should speak with an experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney who can explain your legal options.
Reasons Employees Can Be Fired
The reasons for which a person can legally be fired depend on what category of employee he or she falls under. For example, at-will employees can be fired for any reason. Some of the most common reasons include:
- Previous poor work performance
- Financial problems necessitating layoffs
- A company’s restructuring
Contract employees, on the other hand, can only be fired for specific reasons listed in their contracts. Although employers are still prohibited from terminating a person in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim, the North Carolina Industrial Commission (NCIC) indicates that employers can let someone go if the person’s contract includes a provision permitting termination if he or she cannot work for a certain amount of time, usually six months. This means that employees on long-term workers’ compensation claims can sometimes be legally let go by their employers.
Regardless of whether an employee is at-will or a contracted worker, employers are prohibited from firing a person because he or she filed a workers’ compensation claim. Furthermore, once an employee has healed, he or she can return to the same job.
Even if an employee has permanent work restrictions as a result of an injury, his or her employer must make reasonable efforts to accommodate those restrictions. If, however, an employer cannot accommodate an employee’s work restrictions or the injured party can no longer perform the same work, the employer can lawfully terminate employment.
Fortunately, even in these situations, an employee can continue to receive workers’ compensation until he or she finds alternative employment, has fully recovered, or has reached maximum medical improvement (MMI), which is a rating given by a doctor indicating that a condition related to an accident is not likely to improve any further.
What to Do If You’re Being Punished for Filing a Workers’ Compensation Claim
North Carolina’s Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) bars employers from taking discriminatory action against employees for filing a workers’ compensation claim. A retaliatory action includes:
- Retaliatory relocation
- Other adverse employment action
If employees are terminated while on workers’ compensation and suspect that they have been fired as a result of filing the claim, REDA allows them to file a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Labor (DOL). However, the claim must be filed within 180 days of the termination of employment or the claimant will be barred from seeking relief. The DOL then investigates the claim.
If there is no evidence of retaliation, an investigator issues a No Merit finding and a Right-To-Sue letter, which allows an employee to file a civil lawsuit against the employer within the following three months.
If an investigator does find evidence that an employer unfairly fired the petitioner, he or she issues a Merit finding. In these cases, the DOL attempts to mediate between the parties and help the petitioner regain employment.
If an agreement cannot be reached, the DOL either files a lawsuit on the petitioner’s behalf or issues a Right-To-Sue letter authorizing the injured party to file a claim on his or her own behalf.
If an employee takes the case to court, a judge may award the following:
- Lost wages
- Lost benefits
- Attorney’s fees
- Other economic losses
The court can also require an employer to give a fired employee his or her old job back.
Documenting the Evidence
Because it can be difficult to prove that an employer terminated a person as a result of filing of a workers’ compensation claim, it is important to keep careful records of your injury and employment history. This may include:
- Printed emails
- Employment-related documents
- Injury reports
- Employment contracts
- Disciplinary records
- Evidence of changes to benefits
- Proof of a demotion or pay cut
Retaining copies of these documents is critical because for the most part they will make up the evidence analyzed by the discrimination investigator evaluating a claim.
How a Dedicated Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Can Help
Suffering an injury at work can be both painful and frightening, as many employees find themselves worried that they will be fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Fortunately, North Carolina has laws in place to prevent employers from taking retaliatory action.
If you are concerned about being fired over a work injury, please contact the dedicated workers’ compensation attorneys at Teddy, Meekins & Talbert today to learn about your legal rights. We are proud to serve residents in Shelby, Rutherfordton, Gastonia, Lincolnton, and the surrounding areas.