Posted On: November 17, 2009 by Glenn Neiman

Employers’ Ability to Change Modified-Duty Job Tasks Permissible in PA Workers’ Comp

When an injured worker in Pennsylvania is physically unable to perform his or her time-of-injury job, due to a work injury, the burden falls to the employer to prove the existence of a job that is “available” to the injured worker. For a job to be “available,” it must be within the injured worker’s physical capabilities, as well as be suitable with regard to other “relevant considerations” (which may include vocational suitability, job location, and other factors).

A previous decision of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania had told us that a modified job being offered must specifically state the duties which would be expected. The Supreme Court had already told us that a job which is for only a finite period can only lead to a modification or suspension for that period the job is available.

Recently, however, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania decided Presby Homes and Services v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Quiah), which calls both of these prior decisions into question.

In Quiah, the injured worker was released to light duty work. The employer offered her a light duty job, and in the job offer letter, specifically listed the duties which would be required. The key, though, is that the job offer letter also stated that this position is merely an at-will job, and that the “job duties, tasks, work hours and work requirements may be changed at any time.”

Relying on the existing law, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) found the employer witness not credible, because the job carried these two limitations. The WCJ found that the job was not available to the injured worker. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) agreed.

The Commonwealth Court of PA reversed the decision of the WCJ, and found the job available as a matter of law. First, the Court found that the WCJ erred in finding the employer witness not credible; placing these limitations on the job offer, the Court said, had no impact on credibility and the WCJ erred in concluding otherwise.

As to the statement that the job was at-will, the Court observed that most jobs in PA are at-will (short of a contract employee or a union), and therefore, this statement means nothing. This can easily be distinguished from the situation where a job is only offered for a finite period of time. Candidly, this conclusion is reasonable, and consistent with precedent.

More troubling for us, as attorneys who represent injured workers in PA, is the Court’s dismissal of the second caveat, that job duties can be changed at any time. The Court flippantly noted that if new duties are inconsistent with the injured worker’s capabilities, the injured worker can simply file a Petition for Reinstatement. This seems a rather naïve view from such a learned body. While the injured worker can discuss the initial job offer letter with his or her lawyer, and doctor, and consider options without duress or pressure, the injured worker has no such luxury when job duties are changed at any moment during a work day. This seems to be a recipe for disaster for an employer to intimidate its employee into doing more than his or her condition would safely allow. Since the Courts are fond of noting that the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is remedial legislation, intended to be liberally construed in favor of the injured worker, such a draconian ruling from this Court is quite disappointing.