Can my employer fire me after a work injury?
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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021
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If you can’t work after a work injury, and also do not or cannot use either FMLA leave or paid time off you earned to cover any absences, or if you simply cannot do your job, your employer may terminate you.
People often think that they cannot be terminated after a work injury. Unfortunately, that is not actually true; you cannot be terminated simply because you are injured, but you can still be terminated for other reasons, including reasons related to the injury.
First, if there was a valid reason unconnected to the injury to terminate or lay you off, being injured will not prevent that lay off or termination. The injury does not affect work decisions unrelated to the injury itself. So, for example, say that there was a downsizing. If you were going to be part of it, you may still be part of it. Or if you had been insubordinate, had violated supervisor instructions or company policy, had documented performance issues, etc., you may be terminated for those reasons despite being injured.
Second, the law does not give you the right to miss work due to injuries or for medical care unless you use the Family and Medical Leave Act (or a similar state law) for any absences, or cover the days you missed with paid time off (PTO), like sick or vacation days, which you earned. Otherwise, without using FMLA leave or PTO, if you miss work, it is an unauthorized absence, and unauthorized absence is a valid reason to terminate you, even if you are injured. FMLA has some restrictions on eligibility and coverage–for example, it only applies to employers who have at least 50 employees located within a 75-mile radius–so many people will not be eligible to use it. It’s a good idea, therefore, to check to see if your state has a similar medical leave law which is more expansive and which would cover you, if FMLA does not.
Third, you must be able to do your job. While a company does have to make a “reasonable accommodation” to an injury or medical condition, that is some change or assistance which is not too disruptive or expensive for the employer and its operations, and which lets you do the core or important functions of your job. If you can’t do those core functions, then you may be terminated, even if the reason you can’t do those things is a work injury. The law does not make employers retain people who can’t do their jobs (and also does not require employers to move them to a different job or create a new, “light duty” position for them). So, in a common example, say you work in a warehouse or in making deliveries and it’s important that you must be able to lift 50 lbs to handle the product–if your injury leaves you unable to lift that much weight, you may be terminated.