Law firm offers insight into workers' comp, ADA overlap
The intersection between state workers’ compensation laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can be complicated, particularly when workers’ compensation complainants seek high settlements based on their inability to return to work, according to a recent article from Keefe, Campbell, Biery & Associates (KCB&A).
The two regulations provide protections and benefits for different circumstances but do occasionally overlap. Workers’ compensation systems vary from state to state and are designed to help employees who have suffered occupational injuries and illnesses achieve prompt and fair resolution of their claims against employers.
The ADA is a federal law enacted in 1990 and intended to protect people with disabilities from discrimination based on those disabilities, whether from current or prospective employers. Specifically, the ADA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”
Under this definition, a worker who is injured or impaired on the job and who qualifies for compensation through workers’ compensation is not always covered under the ADA, but might be depending on the severity of the injury and the employer’s actions after the fact.
As the KCB&A article points out, if an employee’s injury is covered by workers’ compensation but does not substantially limit a major life activity, that person would not be protected under the ADA. But an employer’s decisions can extend ADA protections to that same employee if he is not allowed to return to his position at work following his injury. In not allowing the employee to return to the job, the employer is regarding the employee as having an impairment, which triggers ADA protections.
The applicability of the ADA is particularly interesting when dealing with union and government workers. KCB&A makes the case that union interests run contrary to ADA protections. The firm notes that unions often push for members to not return to work if they have suffered work-related injuries or illnesses that left them with permanent restrictions. Unions that argue that their members cannot return to work push for wage loss differential claims, which can result in six- and seven-figure settlements. In contrast, the ADA requires that employers offer workers in these situations a permanent light duty position.
The ADA is similarly often set aside in Illinois when government workers, like police, firefighters and prison guards, suffer injuries and illnesses that prevent them from returning to the job. The state typically awards these workers substantial benefits through the workers’ compensation system based on the idea that they have lost their ability to practice their trade. Further, the state often provides them with lifetime health care coverage, sometimes extending that coverage to the worker’s family. According to KCB&A, the costs of these benefits can reach millions of dollars for some workers.
The firm contends that state should follow ADA requirements in these cases, funneling injured state workers into administrative positions available in their designated fields. This would allow the state to capitalize on the intensive training many of these workers have received and see state revenue go toward filling open positions rather than workers’ compensation settlements.
KCB&A points out that while workers’ compensations laws are mostly “no fault” laws, the ADA is not, opening up employers to litigation in cases in which an injury is also a disability. The firm also clarified the rules surrounding pre-hiring inquiries related to the ADA and workers’ compensation laws. Employers can make workers’ compensation-related inquiries after an offer of employment is made if the inquiries are made of all workers entering that job category. In doing so, the inquiries satisfy both regulations.