Retaliation: Workers\' Compensation

Filing a workers’ compensation claim may subject employees to the risk of retaliation from an employer who does not want to pay the cost. Most states, but not all, have laws that prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who file workers compensation claims. Each state’s laws are similar in many respects but it is important to get information about your particular state. To learn more about what activities are protected and what actions are considered retaliation, read below:

Employers facing increased insurance costs (or direct payment to the employee if they are the direct insurer) may be tempted to retaliate against employees who seek their rightful workers compensation benefits.

In most states, it is against the law for your employer to fire or otherwise retaliate against you because you brought a workers’ compensation claim, depending on the facts of your individual case and whether your state has a law protecting against workers compensation retaliation.

Federal law does not have a prohibition against workers compensation retaliation. However, there are numerous federal laws prohibiting other kinds of retaliation.

While many states have protection against workers compensation retaliation as a necessary safeguard against employer abuse, not all states have laws, and there is some variation among state laws. There are many similarities among these laws. For example, the way an employee proves retaliation and some of the procedures involved often have much in common.

If you feel you have suffered retaliation for filing a workers compensation claim, you may want to consult with an attorney to learn more about any protections that may apply to you.

While individual state laws may vary, to win a case of workers compensation retaliation, you must generally be able to prove all four of the following elements:

While state laws may vary, generally you must be an employee. Your employer must participate in the state workers compensation program or be self-insured.

You must have acted in good faith in seeking workers compensation benefits or engaging in protected activity. While you may still bring a retaliation claim even if you lose your underlying workers compensation claim, your state might not protect you from retaliation if your workers compensation claim was knowingly false, fraudulent, or not brought in good faith. You may want to consult with an attorney to learn more about your state’s law.

In order to be protected, you must have exercised a right granted by the workers compensation program. State laws differ as to what constitutes an exercise of this right. Some state laws require that you formally document the on-the-job injury with the employer or the workers compensation bureau.

However, most state laws are written more broadly. For example, you may be protected when you have claimed or attempted to claim a benefit, made known your intention to file a claim, or even simply suffered a work injury, which is compensable under the workers compensation law.

While in some states, you may still have protection against retaliation without formally filing a written claim for workers compensation benefits, the best way to make sure you are covered by anti-retaliation laws is to actually fill out and file the necessary claims documents promptly after you are injured.

You must show that the employer had discharged or otherwise treated you adversely because of your workers compensation claim. All states with retaliation laws recognize that it is illegal to terminate an employee, but state laws differ as to the range of other employer actions that are considered to be illegal retaliation.

Despite the variations between state laws, all the laws uniformly require some identifiable change in the terms or conditions of your employment that is to your detriment, such as:

  •  demotions;
  •  changes in position or responsibilities;
  •  lowered pay; or
  •  unwarranted disciplinary actions.

For you to win, you must prove that your employer’s action (termination, demotion, etc.) was because of your protected activity. This is called “causation.” This is often the most disputed and difficult part of proving your retaliation claim.

A state may require only that your actions were a substantial factor in the decision to terminate or otherwise change the position of the employee. Alternatively, state law may require that the sole reason for termination was your action in seeking compensation benefits. Most states fall somewhere in between, and require that your actions be a determinative factor.

In addition to the specific law of the state, the circumstances of the case will determine whether you were illegally discriminated against. An alternative legitimate reason for termination, such as a violation of company policy or poor performance reviews, often plays a large role, and can be used by the employer to defend against your retaliation claim.

However, unlawful retaliation can be inferred from timing (how soon it occurred after the employer learned about the protected activity), animus (the boss getting angry about the protected activity), deviation from normal practices (people are not usually fired for this reason, or in this manner), changing explanations, a pattern of adverse actions against employees who file workers compensation claims, or the use of false evidence.

Many states require a retaliation claim to be filed very soon after the retaliation occurs. You may need to take some action under your state’s law in a period as short as a few weeks or months. If you believe you have been the target of retaliation related to a workers compensation claim, it is critical that you learn your state’s time limit immediately by contacting an attorney licensed in your state. If you do not file within the time limit in your state, you may lose your rights to take action against your employer’s retaliation.

For more information about workers compensation, see our site’s main workers compensation page.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.