Commonwealth Court Holds That Injured Worker Did Not Withdraw From Workforce
Ryan Zavodnick | November 11, 2015 | Workers' Compensation
In Chesik v. WCAB (Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs), the Commonwealth Court addressed whether an injured worker’s benefits should be suspended because she had voluntarily withdrawn from the workforce. Both the workers’ compensation judge and the workers’ compensation appeal board rendered opinions suspending the worker’s wage loss benefits.
Ms. Chesik Injured Her Neck At Work In July of 2009
Ms. Chesik injured her neck while working for her employer in July of 2009. A Notice of Compensation Payable was issued and Ms. Chesik began receiving workers’ compensation wage loss benefits. Ms. Chesik lived by herself in Scranton, Pennsylvania at the time of her work-related injury and afterwards. She testified that she suffered from lupus and fibromyalgia in addition to her work injury and that she moved to Nevada in December of 2012 because she felt that her body would do better in the drier climate. The injured worker had retired from her position with her employer in October of 2012 and applied for disability pension benefits in December of 2012. She further testified that she has not looked for any work since moving to Nevada.
The Workers’ Compensation Judge Suspended Her Benefits Based On Her Alleged Removal From The Workforce
After the employer filed a petition to suspend her workers’ compensation benefits on the basis that she had removed herself from the workforce, Ms. Chesik indicated that it was not her intention to remove herself from the workforce when she moved to Nevada and that she would love to work if she could. The workers’ compensation judge was not impressed with her testimony and concluded that the employer had met its burden of proving that she had removed herself from the workforce and therefore the employer did not need to present any medical evidence demonstrating that she had recovered from her work injury and could return to work. The judge also relied on the injured worker’s acceptance of pension benefits as evidence that she had removed herself from the workforce.
The Commonwealth Court Holds That Relocation To Another State Does Not Justify A Suspension Of Workers’ Compensation Benefits
The Commonwealth Court agreed with the injured worker’s argument on appeal that her permanent relocation to Nevada did not constitute a voluntary removal from the workforce and that there were no other facts other than her acceptance of pension benefits to support a conclusion by the court that she had removed herself from the workforce. The Court noted that the workers’ compensation laws specifically contemplate that an injured worker may relocate to another state. Specifically, the law provides that if an employer performs a labor market survey or earning power assessment with respect to an injured worker who has relocated, the vocational expert must identify available positions in the usual employment area where the injury occurred instead of where the employee lives, which would typically be the case. The court therefore stated that the Act specifically contemplates that an injured worker might relocate out of state and continue receiving benefits.
Turning to the injured worker’s receipt of a disability pension, the Court held that the workers’ compensation judge could not solely rely on the worker’s receipt of her disability pension to support a suspension of benefits on the basis that she has permanently separated from the workforce. An employee’s acceptance of a pension following a work injury entitles the employer only to a permissive inference that the worker has retired. Such an inference is not sufficient on its own to establish that the worker has retired and must instead be considered in the context of the totality of the circumstances according to the Court. Since there was no other evidence to support a conclusion that the injured employee had removed herself from the workforce, the Court reversed the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board suspending the injured worker’s benefits.
The Court’s decision in Chesik is certainly a victory for Pennsylvania injured workers. However, the Court’s decision does highlight the potential consequences associated with choices made by an injured worker following the work injury. Decisions such as whether to apply for social security disability benefits, a private pension and/or whether to relocate out-of-state are decisions that a person receiving workers’ compensation benefits should discuss with an attorney before making.