Workers' complication Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2004
Most likely, you don't know a teacher with the last name of Coolidge. Nor could most of us point out Riverdale Local School on an Ohio state map.

But if you are an Ohio employer, those two names may have a profound effect on your company's leave of absence policy.

Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously decided in Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School that an employee receiving a specific type of workers' compensation (temporary total or TT) may not be discharged on the basis of absenteeism or inability to work.

"The decision says that Ohio employers cannot terminate employees who are out on total temporary disability leave for (violations of) the company's extended leave policy," says William L. S. Ross, partner-in-charge of workers' compensation at Calfee, Halter & Griswold. "What this ruling does is render most leave of absence policies illegal in the state of Ohio."

 

Status power

Temporary total benefits are available to employees who are off work with a temporary medical inability to return to their former position due to an injury or exposure sustained on the job.

"In the pre-Coolidge era, there was a definite separation of an individual's employment status and the maximum allowed leave of absence from their workers' compensation rights," says Ross.

But in light of this new ruling, employers' policies are overruled by an employee's workers' comp status.

Many employers have policies in which leaves of absence max out, usually at from six months on the short side, to a year, which is more common. When an employee exceeded that time, "they would remove you from the payroll ... and that was considered legal," says Ross. "It didn't matter why you were off - personal reasons or sabbatical, health or family."

There have always been antidiscrimination rules in place to protect injured employees, but the real sticking point is the TT designation, especially for work forces prone to injuries over time due to age or other factors. Ross says that something as common as a back injury can take up to six months to heal.

"The court went out of its way to further the rule so that those employees have no obligation to fill out leave of absence paperwork or notify employers of their medical status or expected return," Ross says.

This means that as long as they have TT status, they are untouchable.

 

Deciphering the court's wishes

Since the ruling is relatively recent, many of the details are not yet clear. Questions such as how long an employee can be on TT disability or whether normal benefits should be extended have yet to be answered.

Ross' best advice at the moment is to follow up on all current workers' comp claims, especially those of employees who are actively seeking or are currently on TT disability.

"We advise our clients to be on top of their worker's comp claims," Ross says. "We urge them to maintain ties to the employee or the company managing the claim ... or you will lose. It is important you maintain a record that reflects that the employer communicated with the employee."

There is some good news, says Ross.

"The workers' comp system has gotten more streamlined and efficient in last few years," he says. "With a well-crafted and timely filed motion, the case can be heard within two to three months of filing. It used to take several months to a year." How to reach: Calfee, Halter & Griswold, (216) 622-8221 or www.calfee.com

 


Lingering questions

The Ohio Supreme Court, hearing Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School on appeal, overruled prior Ohio case law and joined Kansas and Maine in a minority position that provides job security to workers' compensation claimants receiving Total Temporary disability benefits.

However, for Ohio employers, there are numerous unanswered questions.

* Are employers still obligated to provide continued payment for health insurance and related benefits?

* What is the retroactive scope of the Coolidge case in regard to employment terminations prior to the release of the court's decision?

* Does the ruling confer Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)-style rights on all Ohio businesses, regardless of size?

* Must employers return the claimant to the same job/position and pay, seniority, benefits, etc., levels?

* At what point does a claimant lose the protection of the Coolidge case?

* Does Coolidge apply to employers that continue paying wages in lieu of TT benefits to hold down workers' compensation claim costs?

There are motions and amices briefs asking the court to water down or reconsider the decision, but given the unanimity of the court, it is unlikely that it will withdraw the decision in its entirety.