Is my company required to hold open an injured worker’s job position?

Additional information: My company has an employee who’s been complaining about some back pain for quite a while now. He’s gone to various doctors and saw a neurologist recently. This doctor sent him for tests and told the employee he’s got a disc problem that is connected to arthritis in his back. Doctors have been treating his condition with physical therapy up until now, but the neurologist doesn’t think this will help. He advised the employee he’s best off getting surgery to fix his back and told him he should not be doing the sort of heavy physical work we do here. I’m wondering what to do. Am I required to hold open his job and, if so, for how long? From the sounds of thing, he may not ever be able to come back to his job. 

Attorney Answer:

Dealing with this situation will require you to decide what you’d like to see happen, then evaluate what you need to do from a legal standpoint. With any luck, these two things will coincide. Before you take any action, you should be sure you fully understand the legal implications.

A key issue here is whether this employee is handicapped by his back condition. Figuring that out will require some details about his condition. This issue can be a bit complex and should be approached carefully. Determining whether a handicap exists requires analysis of whether a medical condition impacts a major life activity such as walking, eating, sleeping, working, etc. Normally, conditions that are not permanent and can be fixed by medical care are not handicaps. If your employee is handicapped, it means you’ll need to consider how to accommodate his request for a leave of absence and/or other workplace adjustments. You will not automatically be required to satisfy his requests, but must act reasonably in evaluating and deciding what to do.

I would start here by deciding whether and for how long you can and want to hold open this worker’s job. If he cannot work due to his back condition, decide if you can live without him for any period of time and, if you can, for how long. Assuming you want to help him out with a leave, go ahead and discuss a reasonable time frame. If you cannot come to an agreement, either because he needs too much time or because you simply prefer to replace this employee, you need to decide whether he is handicapped. A determination on this point will inform you what, if anything, you must do next. You are best off in this regard seeking help from an employment attorney who understands this complex area of law and can help you.