What Can You Do If You Get Hurt at Work and Your Employer Fires You?
By William M. Julien
Florida is an employment-at-will state. That means an employer can normally hire you, demote you, or fire you for any reason it wants. An employer normally doesn’t even have to have a reason for the action it takes against an employee, no matter how unfair. However, there are certain exceptions to this harsh rule of employment at will.
One of the exceptions to Florida’s employment at will is workers’ compensation retaliation. If you get injured at work, under the workers’ compensation system you are limited to get your medical benefits from the injury and a certain percentage of lost wages if you’re out of work. However, if you can show that your employer terminated you or takes action against you because you got hurt at work or because you filed a workers’ compensation claim, you may be able to file a lawsuit for the wrongful termination.
The Florida legislature has made it illegal for an employer to fire or otherwise retaliate against an employee who has been injured at work or who has filed a workers’ compensation claim. This allows you to sue your employer in court and you are not limited merely to workers’ compensation benefits. This type of lawsuit is usually filed in the county circuit court. You can go before a jury and get damages awarded under typical lawsuits, such as emotional pain and suffering, lost wages, and sometimes even punitive damages to punish the employer who acts intentionally maliciously.
How can you prove your employer got rid of you because you were hurt at work? Normally, an employer is not stupid enough to admit it fired an injured employee because they were hurt at work. While it is sometimes difficult to prove that an employer fired you because you got hurt or filed a workers’ compensation claim, there are ways to do so.
One way that you can prove it is to show the timing of your termination. For instance, if you worked at an employer for several years before you got hurt or filed a workers’ compensation claim, and then you are terminated shortly thereafter, then that is strong evidence that the reason you were terminated was because you got hurt at work. Evidence can include statements by the employer such as: “don’t file a workers’ compensation claim;” “my workers’ compensation insurance rates will go up;” “you are a liability;” “I can’t afford to have injured workers around the work place;” and, “put your claim through your health insurance and not workers’ comp.” These types of comments are evidence to prove that the reason the employer fired you was because you got hurt and not for some other reason.
If you get injured at work, you may also have a claim against your employer under the and the Americans With Disabilities Act (and the almost identical Florida Civil Rights Act). Under those laws, an employer must accommodate you if you have a disability (handicap) and/or request accommodations for that disability. A lot of times, a workers’ compensation injury can qualify as a disability, even if it’s a minor injury. This is especially true if your employer perceives you as being disabled or treats you as being disabled because you got hurt. In fact, there are actually government regulations that say if an employer treats you differently because you got hurt at work, then you may be entitled to the protections of the Americans With Disability Act. Thus, an employer would have to actually give you accommodations for your injury.
Accommodations include things like light-duty work, job restructuring, reassignment, time off work, etc. It is best for an employee to request an accommodation so the employer cannot say that it did not know you had a disability requiring accommodations. Usually your employer needs to accommodate your doctor’s work restrictions It is unlawful for an employer to have a policy of not allowing disabled or injured workers to return to work until and unless they are “full duty” or “100%.” It is unlawful for your employer to fire you because you requested accommodations.
If you are injured at work or suffer from a serious medical condition, you may also have protections under the Family Medical Leave Act. That law requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious medical condition. You must have been employed for at least a year to get protections under the FMLA. A lot of employers think that once they’ve complied with the Family Medical Leave Act they are done with you and can go ahead and fire you if you’re not ready to come back to work after 12 weeks. However, in many circumstances, the employer may have to give you more time off work and light duty, etc., under the workers’ compensation laws or Americans With Disabilities Act. This is after the 12 weeks are up.
If you’re an injured worker and you’re employer holds that against you or takes action against you, you do have rights in Florida. This is especially true if you’re fired. You should contact an employment lawyer.