Clearly many folks are concerned right now about the effect on their weekly compensation checks of any potential layoff of themselves and their fellow employees at work or company closures due to the severe economic downturn and mandatory closures related to the Coronavirus.
This is a very important question right now and also this particular question regarding layoffs happens to be an evolving and very active area of VA Workers Comp law.
The short answer is if you are currently under an ongoing, finalized Award for benefits, meaning an Award for weekly checks for either Temporary Total or Temporary Partial Disability, then NO, you will not lose your benefits; however, if you are NOT under an Award yet and your position is permanently eliminated or the layoffs are clearly permanent with no chance of re-hiring, then you will likely have a very difficult time of trying to obtain comp check benefits from the date of such layoff forward. You may only be able to claim benefits up until the date of the layoff. It’s not impossible to prove ongoing benefits in a permanent layoff situation, but you will be required to rise to a very high level of proof to show that your inability to obtain a job is due to your disability and not just to your job being eliminated permanently.
That being said, if the layoff is only temporary—as many will likely be in our current situation—then if you are not under an Award and on light duty, you would still be able to claim benefits; however, you would need to engage in active marketing of your residual capacity to work in order to prove your inability to find a job. And of course, you will likely end up at a Workers Comp Commission Hearing to prove you engaged in adequate marketing.
Of course, those held out of work 100% by their doctors due to their work injuries and have the physician’s work notes to prove it would not need to prove marketing.
If this all seems confusing, I encourage you to first see my video on the importance of being under an Open or Ongoing Award for benefits in Virginia. It’s important to understand what an Award accomplishes for you in Virginia.
So why is someone under an ongoing or Open Award in a better position compared to someone who is not in a layoff situation?
It’s because when you’re under an ongoing Award, that Award is a proclamation or Order by the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission that you are entitled to the weekly benefits stated in that Order on an ongoing basis, until proven otherwise by the defense. In other words, you have met your burden and you have won your case. Many times, the Award occurs due to an Award agreement, but the result is the same—once that Award has been entered by the Commission and the 30 day appeal period has passed, the Order is Final and you have won.
When you have an ongoing or Open Award for weekly benefits, it becomes the defense’s burden to prove you’ve been returned to full duty and that you are capable of performing your pre-injury work if they want to get out of paying you those weekly benefits. There are a few other ways for them to stop the Award, such as failure to comply with medical treatment or vocational rehabilitation, but they’re not relevant to our discussion right now.
If the defense cannot prove you are capable of a return to full duty, then you are going to remain under your ongoing Award and they still have to pay you your ongoing, weekly benefits even during the layoff and even if the layoff is permanent.
Now what about folks who are not under an Award yet, but are trying to prove one?
The case law is clear that for folks who are not yet under an Award, the difficulty of proving you are entitled to benefits really depends on whether the layoff is temporary or permanent.
This is because an injured worker who is not yet under an Award has no Order from the Commission regarding anything. Nothing has yet been proven, so the burden of proof remains on the injured worker to show he or she is entitled to benefits.
In a temporary layoff situation, if you are on light duty, assuming your employer does not accept you back at light duty status, so long as you are able to prove sufficient marketing of your residual capacity to work (i.e. looking for work elsewhere within your physical restrictions) during the temporary layoff, you should be able to prove you’re entitled to benefits. Of course, you will likely have to go to Hearing to prove that.
Again, if you are in a temporary layoff, and your authorized treating physician has you out 100% due to your injuries, then since you currently have no residual capacity to work per your doctor, you do not have to market or look for work. You would only need to prove your total incapacity with your doctor’s work notes and office notes.
Unfortunately, for those of you whose positions are eliminated and are fully and permanently laid off along with your coworkers, if you are on light duty and not yet under an Award, you will unfortunately find it much more difficult to be able to claim ongoing weekly workers comp benefits. The case law in such circumstance requires a higher level of proof to show that your economic loss is due to your injury and not the elimination of your job.
The Commissioners and Judges have reasoned in the case law that since you don’t yet have an Award, and your job has been eliminated, the burden is on you to prove economic loss due to your work injuries. And since the burden is on you for proof and since the reason you don’t have a job is because your job was permanently eliminated, then you need to prove your economic loss is actually related to your work injuries and not just the fact that your job does not exist any longer. In such cases, just doing the marketing/looking for light duty work as usual is probably not enough. There needs to be proof that not only can you not find a job, but the reason you cannot find a job is because of your work restrictions as set forth by your treating doctor. If you don’t have such proof, then the Commission will find that the loss is not related to your work injury. They will find that it is related to the fact that your job no longer exists.
Such proof may be through the hiring of an expert such as a vocational rehabilitation expert, and/or through some kind of testimony or other evidence from one or more of the potential employers where you applied that you could not be hired because your work restrictions could not be accommodated.
We think that the decision by the Court of Appeals back in 2016 which raised the standard of proof for permanently laid off employees was wrong and a harsh result, and in fact there were strong dissents by Judges on the case, but unfortunately those Judges were outvoted and that is the law in Virginia.
The only good news is that in many of the Full Commission decisions that have followed this 2016 Court of Appeals Case, the Commission has gone to great lengths to say it does not apply to the situation at hand. Clearly, the Full Commission also feels the Court of Appeals went too far and takes every opportunity to try to limit the harsh effects of that decision.
Also, just to be 100% clear, it is very important to distinguish between an Open or Ongoing Award and a Closed Award. A Closed Award is for some past period of weekly payments that has now ended because you have returned to work. Although such an Award contains a lifetime medical benefit and is also evidence that your claim is compensable (meaning there is no longer a defense that you did not have a legitimate, on-the-job injury) in terms of attempting to get your checks started again because you have been laid off, it’s almost like have no Award at all. In other words, if you’re on light duty, you would have to prove it’s a temporary layoff and you would have to prove marketing just like the folks with no Award at all. And just like those folks, you would not be able to prove any entitlement to ongoing checks if your layoff became permanent.
We hope this article has been helpful.
From all of us here at Joe Miller Law/The Work Injury Center, please stay safe, please follow the CDC COVID-19 Guidelines for prevention, and God Willing we will all get through this safely together.
Attorney Joe Miller has been representing injured workers in Virginia and North Carolina for over 32 years. If you have any questions about a worker’s compensation injury incurred by you or a loved one, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at 888-694-1671 or fill out our online contact form
Please do not wait to contact us, as there are time deadlines for filing your claim. If you fail to meet those deadlines, your right to benefits will be forever lost.