In a workers’ compensation case, the term light duty refers to a modified job assignment that is less physically or mentally demanding than a worker’s normal duties.
Five common examples include:
- the worker’s old job, but without any strenuous duties,
- a desk job,
- taking inventory,
- working as a parking attendant, or
- handling customer service calls.
These jobs allow employees with a workers’ compensation case to return to work without aggravating their injury. Depending on the state, though, employers may not be legally required to offer a light duty role.
Can I work my old job without doing the parts that hurt my injury?
Yes, injured workers may be allowed to return to their old job, but with the regular job duties modified so the strenuous parts are left to someone else. This is often the solution
- when the victim’s work restrictions only cover a small portion of the worker’s job responsibilities, or
- when the victim can absorb the tasks of many other workers without violating his or her work restrictions.
For example: A walking letter carrier for the Post Office develops severe foot pain when delivering the mail. He is put on light duty work sorting the mail before delivery. Normally, each letter carrier sorts the mail that they are to deliver. While the victim is on light duty, though, he sorts the mail for the other letter carriers so they can walk his route.1
Do employers have designated light duty roles?
Some companies have designated roles for injured workers.2 Many of these companies provide labor services that create a foreseeable risk of workplace injuries, like those in:
- grounds keeping,
- moving, and
- manual labor.
Because these physically demanding tasks often lead to workplace injuries, these companies may have certain roles that are specifically for workers who have been hurt and are recovering.
Typical light duty tasks
Some common light duty roles for recuperating employees include:
- filing clerk,3
- parking lot attendant,4
- sweeper or worksite cleaner,5 and
- taking inventory.6
In other cases, hurt workers may work temporarily in a modified role or fill in for another employee who is on leave, vacation, or who is about to resign.
Many employers limit their designated light duty roles to workers who are temporarily, rather than permanently, disabled.7
What is a light duty job?
Light duty is temporary or permanent work that is physically or mentally less demanding than normal job duties.8 Employers can offer a light duty job to workers who have been hurt on the job and cannot perform all of their old job’s functions.
The light duty job has to comply with any work restrictions that the employee’s doctor has issued. Light duty work is an important aspect of workers’ compensation law.
The doctor’s role in determining the worker’s capabilities
After suffering a work injury, an employee will see a primary treating physician, or PTP.
Based on the worker’s symptoms, the PTP can either:
- clear the victim for work without restrictions,
- let the victim return to work light duty under certain medical restrictions, or
- refuse to let the victim return to work, at all.
Some examples of work restrictions include no:
- repetitive gripping and grasping,
- using pounding or vibrating tools,
- typing, often for workers who have suffered carpal tunnel syndrome,
- heavy lifting or squatting, often with a weight restriction,
- bending or stooping or twisting at the waist or back,
- driving for prolonged periods of time, and
- prolonged or uninterrupted periods of sitting, walking, pushing, or pulling, often with a specified length of allowable time.
Possible outcomes after meeting with the doctor
Based on these restrictions, the employer can then offer the worker a light duty job. This work program would have to comply with the work restrictions set by the doctor.
If the employer does not offer a light duty job, or if there is no modified work available, the worker can receive temporary disability benefits through workers’ compensation. These benefits would cover a portion of his or her lost wages.
If the employer does offer a light duty job, but the worker refuses it, he or she will not receive disability benefits through their workers’ compensation claim.
If the worker accepts the modified working position, he or she will continue to receive their salary from their employer. They will not receive disability payments through their workers’ comp claim, as this would create a windfall.
As the worker continues to improve, the doctor will modify the working restrictions. The goal is for the worker to return to his or her regular job and to work it full time.
Common workplace disputes regarding light duty
In some cases, modified job duties can create conflict in the workplace. Some common disputes regarding light duty work are:
- the worker feels pressured to return to his or her original job before they are medically ready for it,
- the employer struggles to distribute job duties with the employee working in a reduced capacity,
- the employer assigns the worker tasks that he or she is not supposed to do, according to the doctor’s orders,
- the employer thinks that the employee’s injuries and physical limitations are not as bad as he or she is claiming them to be, or is being too cautious about returning,
- the employer gets frustrated paying the employee’s normal salary for less demanding work, and
- the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance company pushes for the employee to return to work so the employer pays the worker a salary, rather than the insurer paying the worker disability payments.
These disputes can become quite significant. The employer may even retaliate against the worker for his or her injury. Injured employees facing any of these issues should strongly consider getting the legal advice of a workers’ compensation lawyer from a reputable law firm.
Does my employer have to provide a role for my work restrictions?
In most states, employers are not legally obligated to offer a light duty job for workers who have been hurt on the job and who now have work restrictions. However, they may be required to make reasonable accommodations for the worker in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Even where they are not legally required to do so, many employers offer light duty jobs, anyway. Workers’ compensation insurers tend to provide a discount on the premium payments that they charge to employers who offer light duty positions to hurt workers.
Employers who offer light duty roles pay the workers in those jobs their salary. If the employer did not offer the role, the injured worker would continue to receive workers’ compensation disability payments. These payments come from the insurer. Insurers incentivize the creation of light duty jobs in order to reduce the disability payments it hands out.
Will I continue to receive workers’ compensation if I refuse a light duty job?
Generally, no. If an injured worker is offered a light duty job and refuses it, he or she will not be entitled to receive disability payments from the workers’ comp system.
However, if the light duty job was inadequate or does not comply with the victim’s work restrictions, a refusal may not impact their workers’ compensation benefits.
What is the difference between light duty and modified duty?
“Light duty” and “modified duty” are often used interchangeably in workers’ comp cases. Technically, they are different.
Light duty is less demanding work, physically and/or mentally. An example would be answering phones instead of stocking shelves.
Modified duty means work in which obstacles that prevent injured workers from carrying out their essential job duties are changed, adapted, or eliminated. Therefore workers are performing the same job, just under different conditions – such as meeting with clients over Zoom rather than in person.9
How does OSHA define light duty?
OSHA does not provide a specific definition of “light duty.” Instead, OSHA leaves it up to employers to decide specific light duty roles and responsibilities based on their employee’s capabilities.
Although OSHA does not require employers to offer light duty, they do require that any light duty offered be administered in a non-discriminatory manner in accordance with ADA guidelines. OSHA also recommends that the employee’s physician help the employer and employee determine what type of light duty would be safe and expedite recovery.10
- Shiring v. Runyon, 90 F.3d 827 (3d Cir. 1996).
- See, for example, Dalton v. Subaru-Isuzu Automotive, Inc., 141 F.3d 667 (7th Cir. 1998).
- Jones v. Astrue, No. 12-cv-2125-WJM (D.Colo. Aug. 27, 2013).
- Knight v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 562 S.E.2d 434 (N.C. Ct. App. 2002).
- Williams v. Dolgencorp, Inc., 888 So. 2d 260 (La. Ct. App. 2004).
- See, for example, Hendricks-Robinson v. Excel Corp., 154 F.3d 685 (7th Cir. 1998).
- See Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Notice No. 915.002, “Enforcement Guidance: Workers’ Compensation and the ADA.” September 3, 1996.
- See, for example, Handbook for Injured Employees, Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
- See, for example, OSHA regulation 1904.36 – Prohibition against discrimination. See also Clinicians, OSHA.