RETHINKING “LIGHT DUTY”
It is no secret that employers often struggle with fashioning light duty jobs for employees on the mend. A growing trend, however, is for employers to send employees in need of light duty assignments to work for charitable or community organizations wherein the employee receives his or her regular wage and the organization receives a “volunteer.” By engaging in community service, the employee is returning to a job and is productive, albeit in new and different ways. The employer is getting the benefit of goodwill in the community, as well as assisting the employee in the healing and reconditioning process.
Although the benefits of these arrangements seemingly outweigh the challenges, employers should be aware of the potential pitfalls of such programs. One consideration is whether the employer has the resources to implement and manage the program – someone to coordinate with the charitable organization and to manage the off-site employee, if necessary. Another consideration is whether the employer is creating additional liability for itself or the organization through this joint relationship.
While the courts have typically embraced such programs, there are some cautions. First, an employer interested in implementing such a program must select a partner close in proximity to the workplace. In instances where employees have challenged these types of light duty assignments, courts have considered whether the location of the light duty worksite is unreasonably far for the employee to travel. Second, employers should consider the nature of the volunteer work to be performed. In West Virginia, at least one administrative law judge within the workers’ compensation system has upheld an employee’s challenge to a light duty assignment wherein the employee did not feel safe assisting at a homeless shelter.
Overall, taking this out-of-the-box approach to light duty assignments appears to be beneficial to all involved. As is true when implementing any new employment program, companies should contact their legal counsel to discuss the pros and cons of the new policy and to attempt to avoid any legal missteps.