Employers often shy away from discharging employees for disciplinary reasons when those employees are receiving workers’ compensation benefits, such as in instances where the employee is working a modified duty assignment. However, such employees can and should be held to the same standards as other employees, including compliance with applicable policies and procedures. Additionally, so long as the discharge is found to be related to the disciplinary violation, any subsequent loss of earnings will be deemed to be unrelated to the work injury, thus rendering the discharged employee ineligible for reinstatement of workers’ compensation wage loss benefits.
In a recent unreported Commonwealth court case, (Waugh v. WCAB, No. 702 C.D. 2016), the Claimant was employed as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at a medical center. She had sustained an accepted work injury to her right arm, when a patient grabbed and twisted her arm in the course and scope of her employment. She underwent two surgeries and eventually returned to work in a modified duty capacity.
While working modified duty, Claimant was reprimanded for acting outside the scope of her employment for administering medication to a patient. Several months later, there was a similar incident, in which Claimant applied a tourniquet to a patient while assisting a phlebotomist, who was attempting to draw blood. Employer’s policy in the event a phlebotomist cannot locate a vein, is to call a specialized IV team to insert the needle and draw blood. Claimant was terminated for this second instance of acting outside the scope of her employment. Despite her protests that she was “only trying to help,” the termination was held to be proper, as was the workers’ compensation determination denying reinstatement of benefits.
The Court reaffirmed the longstanding rule that a lack of “good faith” on the part of the claimant, is sufficient to deny reinstatement of workers’ compensation wage loss benefits. This is so, even where unemployment benefits are awarded, on the basis that the employer had not established a case of willful misconduct under the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Act.
The determination of good faith or bad faith is obviously “fact sensitive,” but in situations where the employer would discharge the employee absent a workers’ compensation backdrop, this factor alone should not discourage the employer from taking the appropriate disciplinary action, including discharge.