This is a question that we hear often and frankly, it is a very scary part of a work injury case here in Iowa. If you get fired while on workers' comp one question will be why did you get fired? If you were fired because you did not show up to work and did not have a doctor's excuse, then this is bad for your workers' comp case. If you got fired because you had permanent work restrictions that your employer was not willing or able to accommodate, then this can be good for a case and you may have other remedies discussed below.
Please note that your employer can fire you while you are receiving workers comp. I know this will come as a shock to many of you, but you are an employee at will under Iowa law so you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all.
But there may be some protection for you under the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) or a collective bargaining agreement that you may have through your union. However, these laws do not change the fact that you can be fired, they may just allow you, later on, to get your job back along with potentially additional damages.
Now let's discuss in more depth the reason for you being fired.
Terminated because of work injury
There are many different points in time when an employer fires an injured worker. Sometimes, a worker will be fired immediately after the injury for say a safety violation. Other times, an injured worker is fired while they are off work healing from their injuries and have used up their 12 weeks of FMLA time. A common time for an injured worker to be fired is once they have reached MMI (maximum medical improvement) and have been given permanent work restrictions. You should provide your employer with your permanent work restrictions and ask for work. You need to be ready, willing and able to do the work within your restrictions. While you may not yet know if you are able for sure to do the work, you must at least go and try to do the job. One of the worst things you can do for your workers' compensation case is to refuse to do work that is offered to you. This is a very complicated area of the law where there are many traps that have been set for injured workers. In 2017 then Governor Branstad and the Republican party voted to significantly reduce compensation to injured workers in a number of ways including if an offer of employment is made to the worker. Employers know the law and will try to catch you in one of the new traps. If you try to navigate this area of the law on your own, it is very possible that you are throwing away thousands of dollars. We are happy to discuss your workers' comp claim, your employment, your termination, etc. at no cost or risk. If you are faced with being fired, you definitely should talk to an attorney as soon as possible. Also, it is possible that you will want to file for unemployment, but there is a right way and wrong way to do this as well discussed in more detail below.
Terminated for some other reason
There are dozens of other reasons that an employer may fire an injured worker. Keep in mind that your employer will always be looking for a way to fire you that is not related to your work injury in an attempt to reduce the compensation that you receive. For example, often employers claim that injured workers did not do their job properly, were late, missed work due to personal matters, committed employment misconduct, etc. Just because your employer claims you were fired for something other than the work injury does not mean that it is true. If your employer fires you, then you will likely want to consider filing for unemployment, but this is a big topic by itself.
Filing for unemployment
It would literally take hours to explain the entire unemployment system and how it works, but here are some general guidelines:
1. Ready, willing and able to work
This is a basic requirement before you even consider filing. Keep in mind that you do not have to certify that you can return to your old job, but rather that there is work available in the open labor market that you can do. For example, let's say you work in a factory and you cannot return to your factory job, but you could return to a light-duty desk job that your employer had you doing for a period of time. Also, maybe there is work in the past you have done that you can do or you could work at a local grocery or convenience store running a cash register, stocking shelves, etc. Before you have any type of phone interview, you should write down some of the jobs you think you could do.
2. Work credits
You have to have enough quarterly work credits in order to qualify. Keep in mind that if you were off work for 3 or more quarters because of your work-related injury, then Iowa Workforce is supposed to skip those quarters and look at the time prior to your work injury. However, rarely do they get this right. Usually, they will send out a notice that you do not qualify because you do not have enough credits. If this happens you need to timely provide Iowa Workforce with the correct information. You can try to do this on your own, but they are looking for very specific things such as your first report of injury, a letter from the insurance company stating TTD and PPD paid, medical records showing your date of MMI, etc.
Under Iowa law, you are not allowed to receive both TTD (temporary total disability) benefits and unemployment at the same time. If you file for unemployment too early in your case, then you are wasting the benefits that you otherwise may have received. However, if your workers’ comp claim has been denied and the employer is not offering you work, then it may make sense to go ahead and file.