Light-duty work is the practice of scheduling an employee to do less physically or mentally demanding work than normal to help them recover from an injury or illness. Companies often provide light-duty work to employees injured on the job, though it can also be provided to workers who get sick or injured unrelated to work. Also called light-duty accommodation, changing a worker’s duties in this way can help your company stay compliant with disability regulations.
Light-Duty Work & Accommodation
Light-duty work is usually short term, used to relieve someone of their full work duties while they recover from an injury. Moving a worker from their full-time duties to light-duty work helps them prepare for their eventual return to full-time work while giving them space to recover from their injury or illness.
From a company perspective, light-duty work can be extremely beneficial because it helps an employee earn a living and get some work done for your company, while stopping their workers’ compensation benefits. If an employee receives a paycheck, they are no longer entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Having injured employees collecting benefits for shorter periods can help keep your premiums down.
However, just because an employee was injured at work and entitled to workers’ compensation benefits does not automatically mean they are entitled to light-duty work accommodation. A reasonable accommodation, light-duty work being one option, is only required if an employee is disabled as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Under these agencies, a disabled worker is a person:
- Who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- With a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- Who is regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
If an employee meets the above definition of disabled, you may need to provide a reasonable accommodation for them. Depending on how your light-duty work program is designed, you might transition them to light-duty work if the employee:
- Cannot perform their regular job duties because of their disability
- Can perform the requirements of light-duty work without undue hardship to the company
When an Employee Might Need Light-Duty Work or Accommodation
A key area of employee management is understanding when an employee must receive an accommodation. Under the ADA and EEOC, disabled employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations from their employer. Light work duties could be a reasonable accommodation, depending on how your light-duty work policy is structured. No labor law requires light work duties as a reasonable accommodation. The type of reasonable accommodation is generally up to the employer, and light work duties are just one of many possible accommodations.
However, even when the law does not require an accommodation, it may still be in your company’s best interest to shift the worker’s duties to light work. If an employee cannot perform their regular job duties because of an injury or illness but can perform light work duties, your company should reassign them.
You have light work duties that need to be done and an employee able to do them; you also don’t have to train the employee on your company policies and procedures since they already work for you. Here are some common examples of when it might be wise to transition an employee to light-duty work.
A pregnant employee is a disabled employee under the ADA and entitled to a reasonable accommodation. You could provide the pregnant employee with light-duty work to keep the employee off their feet or doing less stressful work until they begin their Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time off.
Completely unrelated to work, an employee who suffers a broken leg in a car accident might benefit from a temporary transition to light-duty work. By shifting their workload to something less physically demanding, they still get a paycheck and time to heal, and you still have a happy employee who gets necessary work done.
An employee injured at work may be out while collecting workers’ compensation benefits. At some point, however, they may be well enough to return to doing light-duty work. Giving them that option helps you complete necessary work and helps the employee get back on payroll.
How Long to Keep an Employee on Light-Duty Work
Light-duty work is intended to be short term but what that means can vary by situation. If an employee is pregnant and on light-duty work until they give birth, that has a fairly specific time frame. But if an employee has a broken leg and needs light-duty work until their doctor clears them to return to full-time duties, that time frame might need to be more flexible.
In either case, build in a time frame for return to full-time work. For the pregnancy example, that would be when the employee returns from their maternity leave. For the broken leg example, that would be when the employee gets a letter from their doctor that they can resume a full-time work schedule. We recommend beginning any employee on light-duty work with a time frame of no longer than 120 days.
However, a worker does not have to be 100% better or healed to return to full-time work. In fact, if your company has a policy of not letting employees come back to work in any capacity until they are completely better, you would not need a light-duty work program. More importantly, the EEOC has stated that 100% healed policies may deny employees a reasonable accommodation, in violation of the law. While 100% healed policies may be based on good intentions, it could cause legal headaches for your company.
Terminating an Employee on Light-Duty Work
If you have a worker on light-duty work, whether you can terminate them is not much different from whether you can terminate an employee working full time. When you transition an employee to light-duty work, as a manager, you still need to set goals and expectations. Even if they are doing filing work for a few hours per week, communicate your expectations. If they don’t meet your stated goals and have poor performance, you can terminate them just as you would any other employee who isn’t hitting their goals.
Just don’t get into a position where you’re manufacturing justifications for terminating an employee. A worker on light-duty work should not be terminated because they’re on light-duty work. Don’t offer an injured employee light-duty work that they can’t really do with their injury, either. But if the employee is not meeting the expectations of the light-duty work, you may have justification for a termination.
Pro Tip: Let’s be crystal clear about employees currently collecting workers’ compensation benefits: Do not terminate them without first seeking advice from your employment lawyer. While it can be done, rarely do employers do so correctly, and the legal landmines are everywhere.
Light-Duty Work Program Benefits
Encouraging employees to return to work after an injury, whether suffered on or off the job, provides benefits to everyone involved. Creating and implementing a light-duty work program will ensure your employees understand their options and your company operates the program effectively and applies the program uniformly.
A good light-duty work program provides benefits to both your company and the injured employee. When you must provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee depends on many factors and your corporate counsel can provide guidance. Having a light-duty work program in place, however, will allow you to help an employee temporarily transition their duties, ultimately benefiting your company.
Use our Light-Duty Work Policy Template to help get you started.
Disclaimer: We provide the following information only as a guide. If you have a specific issue involving an employee, seek guidance from legal counsel.