What is Modified Work or Light Duty in California Workers’ Compensation

When a worker is injured on the job, he or she may still be able to work. His or her employer may choose to offer modified work or light duty.

Modified work or light duty is a job with the same employer with fewer physical demands. It allows an injured worker to keep working while he or she recovers from an injury.

The modified work depends on:

  • Work restriction given by a doctor
  • The employer's ability to find work for the injured worker within the restrictions

A doctor, referred to as a “primary treating physician” (PTP), determines which physical activities an injured worker is able to do while recovering from an injury.

The employer then decides if it can offer the injured worker modified work or light duty within the physical limits given by the primary treating physician.

If there is no modified work or light duty available, an injured worker will receive temporary disability benefits for his or her lost wages.

An injured worker who is offered but refuses modified work or light duty will not receive temporary disability benefits for the time he or she is not working.

In this article, our California personal injury attorneys will explain:

1. Why there is modified work or light duty?

An injured worker's physical condition after an injury may prevent him or her from continuing to do the same work as before the injury.

The injured worker has two options:

  1. stop working until his or her condition improves
  2. continue working while doing different or easier tasks until he or she recovers from the injury.

The different or easier job tasks are referred to as modified work or light duty.

Only a doctor can determine the physical ability of an injured worker. Only the employer can determine if there is a job for the injured worker based on his or her physical ability.

Employers usually prefer that an injured worker keep working in some role. Sometimes employers will offer jobs that are considered busy work, just so that they can keep an injured worker on the job.1

2. Getting placed on modified duty or light work

Once there is an injury, the primary treating physician will examine the injured worker and write reports on the injured worker's condition.2 The reports comment on the injured worker's medical treatment, temporary disability status, and permanent disability status.

The doctor will also decide whether the injured worker has restrictions on his or her ability to work and includes the work restrictions in the report.

Examples of work restrictions include:

  • No repetitive gripping and grasping, use of pounding and vibrating tools, and data entry for wrists.3
  • No heavy lifting [and] repeated bending [and] stooping for the back.4
  • No lifting, pushing or pulling over 10 pounds and no bending or twisting at the waist for the back.5
  • No more than 15 minutes of driving and office work of no more than four hours in an eight-hour day with frequent breaks for the back.6
  • No squatting, kneeling, prolonged standing or walking, pushing or pulling, climbing, rapid turning, running, jumping, or lifting or carrying of objects weighing more than 20 pounds for the hip.7

The work restrictions are sent to the employer to decide if there is work within the restrictions. If there is work, the injured worker will be required to do that work until the doctor changes the restrictions.

Alternatively, the doctor could say that the injured worker's condition is severe enough that he or she cannot work at all. In that case, the injured worker will receive temporary disability benefits for lost wages.

Another outcome is that the doctor could say that the injured worker can continue working his or her regular job in spite of the injury.

Sometimes the employer will fill out a job description detailing an injured worker's regular job duties and physical activities necessary for the job. The job description gives the doctor more information to determine whether the injured worker is able to do his or her regular job.

The doctor must notify the insurance company any time an injured worker's ability to work changes.8

3. What if an injured worker refuses light duty?

An injured worker who refuses modified work or light duty will not receive any disability payments for his or her lost wages.

Nearly all injured workers will accept the light duty because he or she needs the temporary disability benefits for living expenses.

If the injured worker believes the modified work or light duty is too difficult, he or she can ask the doctor to:

  • change the work restrictions
  • find that the modified work or light duty is not within the restrictions

If the doctor does one of these, the employer will have to make a new job offer.

If the employer does not make a new job offer, the injured worker will receive temporary disability.

Example: Amanda works as a cashier in a grocery store. She has an injury to her fingers. Her doctor gives her restrictions limiting the use of her fingers. Her employer offers her a job within those restrictions.

Amanda does not believe she can do the modified job. It is too painful for her. If she refuses the modified job, she will not receive temporary disability while not working. But if she accepts the job, she will be in too much pain.

Amanda goes back to her doctor with her concerns. Her doctor changes his restrictions to no use of her fingers. Based on these restrictions, Amanda' employer does not have any modified work for her.

Amanda can stop working and receive temporary disability benefits for her lost wages.

4. What if an employer does not have modified work or light duty?

If an employer does not have work within the doctor's restrictions, the injured worker will receive temporary disability benefits.

The temporary disability benefits will continue until the doctor changes the restrictions or says the injured worker can go back to work.

5. What if there is a dispute about modified duty?

Often the employer is not aware of or does not take seriously the injured worker's physical limitations and pain level. This can lead to an employer offering modified work but then asking the injured worker to do more.

Even if the injured worker complains, an employer may think an injured worker is falsely claiming that the modified work is too hard.

Whatever the employer or injured worker believe, it is up to the doctor to decide the injured worker's ability to work.

Example: Allison works as a sheriff deputy transporting prisoners and she injures her right thumb. After her injury, Allison's doctor gives her restrictions that state she must have:

“no longer than 15–20 minutes of upper extremity activity at one period of time and then have a break.”

Her employer gives her modified work that it believed follows the restrictions of Allison's doctor. Allison does not agree.

Allison goes back to her doctor who did find's that the employer was following the modified work restrictions.9

If Allision stops working, she will not receive temporary disability benefits.

Example: Joanne is given work restrictions and starts on modified work. She does not feel the restrictions are honored by her employer. She stops coming to work and schedules an appointment with her doctor.

Joanne does not receive temporary disability because there is available modified work.

The doctor finds that the modified work was not within the work restrictions. Joanne can receive temporary disability from the time she stopped working.

6. The importance of modified work or light duty to an injured worker

Every injured worker must deal with his or her ability to work during recovery from an injury. It is important to understand how the process works This allows the injured worker to obtain the maximum level of benefits and prevent being assigned work beyond his or her physical abilities

Call us for help...

For help with filing a workers compensation claim in Calfornia or completing workers comp forms, contact us at (855) LAW-FIRM. Our firm helps police officersfirefighters and other workers to get compensation for their job-related injuries. (For cases in Nevada, please visit our article on light duty and modified work in Las Vegas Nevada workers compensation cases.)

California workers' comp attorneys
Call us at (855) LAW-FIRM

Legal References:

  1. Parks v. WCAB (1983) 48 Cal. Comp. Cases 259.

  2. Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 9785.

  3. Kelly v. County of Los Angeles (2006) 71 Cal. Comp. Cases 934, 936.

  4. Kelly, at p. 936.

  5. Njoki v. 24 Hour Fitness, 2016 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS 669.

  6. Id.

  7. Schererhorn v. LAUSD (2008) 73 Cal. Comp. Cases 1418.

  8. Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 9785, subd. (f).

  9. Stephens v. County of Tulare (2006) 38 Cal. 4th 793.

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