When an employee in Pennsylvania suffers a work injury, he or she is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits as long as the wages of the injured worker are reduced due to the effects of the work injury. That certainly sounds like a simple matter, and a reasonable rule, but, as with many things in law, the matter is never as simple as it seems. For example, when is a wage loss “related to the work injury“?
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently dealt with this issue in Donahay v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Skills of Central PA, Inc.). Here, the injured worker was employed as a team leader and a residential services assistant at a group home for mentally challenged adults. In performing her job, she suffered a ruptured right biceps when a resident hung on her arm. Subsequent to the injury, she went back to work, first in a limited role, and then back to her previous duties (though she continued to have physical restrictions, these did not affect her ability to do her job).
After she had gone back to work, her hourly wage was higher than it had been when she was injured. However, due to a reduction in available overtime, her overall earnings were less than her Average Weekly Wage (AWW) when she was injured. She testified that her treating physician had limited her to working a maximum of 45 hours per week. This differed from the testimony of her medical expert, who said that he did not limit the hours she could work in a week. Testimony from fact witnesses presented by the insurance carrier explained that the reduction in overtime was based on budget issues, and applied to all employees.
After hearing the evidence, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) ordered the wage loss benefits suspended, since the loss of earning power was not caused by the work injury. This decision was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).
On appeal to the Commonwealth Court of PA, the injured worker argued she should remain entitled to partial disability benefits, since she remained restricted from the work injury. This was rejected by the Court, who affirmed the decision. The Court noted that “medical restrictions are not relevant if they do not require a modification of the claimant’s pre-injury job duties.” Taking this principle, and applying it to this case, the Court concluded:
“Claimant earns a higher hourly wage post-injury, and her work injury does not limit the number of overtime hours she can work. Claimant’s loss of earnings has resulted from the addition of staff and the limitation on overtime for all employees because of funding cuts, not her work injury. Therefore, the Board did not err in granting Employer’s request to suspend her benefits.”