An important goal of the workers’ compensation system in North Carolina is to return injured workers back to an appropriate job as quickly as practical. Ideally, the injured worker will be able to return to his or her prior employment. But often employees are not able to return to their prior work because of permanent physical limitations related to their injury. Other times the employer does not allow the employee to return to his or her job. In these cases “suitable employment” comes into play.
Suitable employment is an important concept in North Carolina workers’ compensation law. An employer may be allowed to terminate the disability benefits of an injured worker who refuses suitable employment. Vocational rehabilitation professionals may only refer injured workers to jobs that are “suitable.” But what exactly suitable employment means in a particular case can be tricky to determine.
The definition of suitable employment is in GS 97-2(22) and was changed effective June 24, 2014. For claims arising on or after that date, suitable employment means:
- Before the employee has reached Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI), any employment offered to the employee that is within their restrictions and authorized by the authorized treating physician;
- After the employee has reached MMI, employment offered to the employee that the employee is able to perform taking into account the employee’s preexisting and injury-related physical and mental limitations, work skills, education and experience. The work must be within 50 miles of the employee’s home at the time of the injury, or if the employee moved after the injury for a legitimate reason, within 50 miles of their current residence.
Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) means the end of the healing period. It is basically the point at which the injured worker has recovered from his or her injury as much as he of she is likely to recover. MMI is determined by the worker’s authorized treating doctor.
So, for these newer cases, before the worker has reached MMI, suitable employment is any work within the worker’s restrictions, including light-duty and modified work. After MMI, suitable employment means a real, unmodified job within the employee’s abilities. Note that in order to terminate the worker’s disability payments, the employment must be “offered” to the worker. However, if the worker is prohibited from being hired for work in the United States because of their immigration status, the work must simply be “available.”
For older claims where the injury arose before June 24, 2014, “suitable employment” means work the employee can get that offers an opportunity to return the worker as quickly as possible and as close as practicable to his or her pre-injury wage, taking into account a broad array of factors, including the worker’s age, education, job experience, interests and aptitudes, as well as physical and mental abilities. For these older claims whether the employee has reached MMI makes no difference to the evaluation of suitable employment.
If you have questions about suitable employment or another NC workers’ comp issue, please feel free to call or click for your free consultation with a NC workers’ comp attorney. Kevin Bunn is a Board Certified Expert in North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Law. Kevin’s represents injured workers throughout North Carolina, including Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Greenville, Fayetteville, Wilmington, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte.