Question: “I was injured at work and kept working because my employer had light duty available but my boss says he is laying me off/letting me go because of less work being available due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19. Can I start collecting weekly workers’ compensation benefits now?”
The answer is, it depends. Prior to a North Carolina Supreme Court decision in 2014, the answer was usually, yes. Since 2014 this area of North Carolina Workers’ Compensation law has become more complex in a way that makes it much harder for injured workers to obtain weekly workers’ compensation benefits in these scenarios.
The Effects Of The Medlin Case
Before 2014, when an injured worker who had work restrictions and was working in a light duty position was laid off / let go / terminated, insurance companies typically started paying workers’ compensation weekly benefits after the 7-day waiting period. That is primarily because in order to prove disability (entitlement to weekly compensation) under Russell v. Lowes Product Distribution, 108 N.C.App. 762 (1993), an injured worker had to demonstrate that the work injury resulted in a reduction of earning capacity. So, it seemed rather obvious in these circumstances in which an injured worker was separated from employment, that they were necessarily experiencing a lessened ability to earn wages and therefore were entitled to weekly workers’ compensation benefits.
Then along came Medlin v. Weaver Cook Construction, LLC, 367 N.C. 414 (2014),in this case, neither the North Carolina Court of Appeals nor the North Carolina Supreme focused on Hilliard v. Apex Cabinet Co., 305 N.C. 593 (1982)(a case decided long before Russell) determining that Hilliard most closely followed the definition of disability found in the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. The Courts emphasized that injured workers can still use the Russell factors to prove disability but under Hilliard, must also prove that the reduced earning capacity is directly related to the work injury not some other factor like an economic downturn, etc. As an aside, Russell too says, “as a consequence of the work related injury…”. From the North Carolina Supreme Court’s opinion, as best we can ascertain, they felt that though the words appear in both cases, when applying the Russell factors, courts were giving injured workers’ a presumption that reduced earning capacity was related to their injuries.
What does all this mean?
This is a tedious concept in North Carolina Workers’ Compensation law and injured workers have the burden of proving not only that they have a reduced ability to earn wages but specifically, that the reduced wage earning is directly related to the work injury and not another reason. The impact of Medlin is that it has become more difficult in these types of claims for injured workers to prove entitlement to weekly benefits and many of these types of claims are now litigated.
If you are in this situation and your employer says that you’re being let go due to an economic downturn or Coronavirus/COVID-19, that does not mean you are automatically disqualified for workers’ compensation weekly benefits. An experienced attorney can delve into the important details of your case to let you know whether there may be sufficient evidence to prove that regardless of difficult economic times, your injury is the primary reason for your reduction in wages.