Many years ago, business owners and employers held all of the power and workers had relatively few rights. Employers knew they could use and abuse their employees because many of them had no other means of supporting themselves other than by working for the employer. In this environment, an employer could fire a worker for no reason at all, if doing so pleased the employer.
Thankfully, those days are behind us and workers today enjoy far greater protections than those of decades and centuries past. In present day businesses in California, it is much more difficult to fire an employee. In most cases, the employer will need to be able to articulate a valid, neutral and non-discriminatory reason for wanting to terminate a worker’s employment or else the employer may face civil liability. This reality, however, does not stop they myth that filing for workers’ compensation benefits will result in the termination of your employment.
The Myth Explained and Debunked
A significant number of workers in California and elsewhere throughout the United States fear that if they report a workplace injury to their boss – especially a workplace injury in which the worker’s own carelessness or negligence may have played a role – that the boss will take the opportunity to fire the worker and refuse to pay him or her workers’ compensation benefits. For this reason, sick and injured workers will continue to show up day after day to do their jobs, keeping quiet about the pain and hurt they are experiencing from their injury. It isn’t until the worker’s body simply gives out. By this time, the worker’s injuries are far more severe than they would have been had he or she obtained prompt medical treatment.
This scenario plays out at jobsites across the country each day. What is worse, in California at least this situation is entirely unnecessary. California law prohibits an employer from firing an employee simply because the employee reported a workplace injury. In fact, the employer is prohibited from retaliating in any fashion against an employee who reports a workplace accident. This means that the employer may not:
- Fire the worker;
- Demote the worker;
- Subject the worker to disciplinary actions;
- Humiliate or embarrass the worker;
- Shame the worker;
- Make the worker pay money for filing a claim; and
- Taking any other retaliatory action against the worker.
Employers who either fire or retaliate against an injured worker for reporting a workplace injury can be subject to serious legal consequences, including sanctions and/or monetary damages.
Is My Job Completely Safe, Even if I Can Never Return to Work?
The law does give your employer a limited right to terminate your employment (subject to any employment contract you signed and terms contained therein) if you are unable to return to work despite having received the maximum benefit from treatment. For example, if your employer only needs individuals who can operate heavy machinery and your workplace injury is such that you are not permitted or able to operate heavy machinery, your employer may be safe from legal repercussions if he or she elected to terminate your employment. It ought to be noted that this right is limited, so an employee who finds him- or herself in this situation should consult with an attorney right away to make sure his or her rights were not violated.
The Sad Reality of Workers’ Compensation Claims
While the law does not permit an employer to terminate or retaliate against an employee who reports a workplace injury, the truth is terminations and retaliation does occur, even in a state like California. The law does not protect an injured worker from termination or discipline for some other lawful reason other than reporting a workplace injury. What happens in some workplaces is that the employer will begin to pay very close attention to the manner in which the injured worker performs his or her job duties once he or she has returned to work. Or the employer will scrutinize every detail of the employee’s workers’ compensation claim. At the slightest misstep or sign of trouble, the employer will use that mistake (assuming it is legally sufficient) to discipline or fire the employee.
Employees may bring suit against an employer for wrongful termination in this situation, but the employee should be prepared for a long and difficult fight. The employee would need to show that his or her discipline or termination was a pretext and the true reason why he or she was fired was because of the report of the workplace injury. This may be supported, for instance, by internal e-mails or memos, or by testimony of coworkers who overheard your supervisors talk about why you were being fired. These claims should be handled with the assistance of an experienced attorney who knows how to subpoena company records and uncover other evidence that would help support your claim.