A recent workers’ compensation settlement made local news. An Athens city employee fell when a walkway came loose. He suffered significant injuries — requiring surgeries on both knees. He then returned to work at the same or higher pay. While off work receiving medical care, the injured worker received $3,126 in temporary total disability benefits. After returning to work and reaching maximum improvement, he settled for an additional $3,953 in permanent partial disability benefits. That’s a total of $7,079 for an injury which resulted in multiple surgeries.
That does not sound like much. And, it isn’t. Workers’ compensation benefits in Alabama are calculated by formulas. A key factor in deciding what formula applies is — whether or not the injured employee returns to work at the same or greater wage. Where the injured worker does return to work at the same or greater wage, “the worker’s permanent partial disability rating shall be equal to his or her physical impairment and the court shall not consider any evidence of vocational disability.” Alabama Code Section 25-5-57.
What does the statutory language mean? Let’s consider an employee who suffered a bad back injury at work. The employee had spinal surgery. Afterwards, the surgeon placed permanent restrictions on the injured worker preventing significant lifting and many other activities. If the worker is unable to return to his past employment (or similar work), the court can consider evidence of vocational disability — how the injury affects his ability to find gainful work. An employee with significant restrictions may be significantly or totally disabled from work. A severely injured employee could be 100% vocationally disabled. Yet, based on the AMA Guidelines used by doctors, this same injured worker may have only a 5% to 15% impairment rating for his back surgery. So, the difference between considering real vocational disability versus some type of impairment rating can make a huge difference in compensation.