This is a very broad question and the answer depends on certain factors. To aid with this question, South Carolina law and South Carolina courts have provided some guidance in the matter. As with most legal conundrums like this, there must be a balance between the health and welfare of the employee and the ability of the employer to hire and fire employees in a right to work state like South Carolina.
Right To Work
South Carolina is considered a right to work state. Simply put, this means that the right to hire exists alongside the right to fire. Employees typically can be terminated at any time without cause as long as the reason is not prohibited by law. Therefore, if Associate Sue is terminated by Acme Corp., it is generally considered legal as long as it wasn’t done for reasons that are prohibited by law, such as gender discrimination, for example.
Temporary Disability Benefits and Light Duty
Consider the example from above; if we take Sue, and put her in a situation where she has been hurt in the workplace, the calculus of whether an employer can freely fire her changes. South Carolina’s law allows an employer to place an employee on restricted duty or light duty. In most instances, if the restricted duty comes with a pay cut, the employee is still entitled to benefits that may be reduced on a pro rata basis. The law instructs employers that they must provide employees with benefits when they are forced out of work due to an occupational injury or illness. One question, then, is raised: if the employee is removed from duties for reasons other than an illness or injury, are they still entitled to benefits?
Let’s take Sue as an example again. She is still injured and there is no argument that she was injured while at work in the course of her employment. Suppose she is offered a light duty assignment by her employer, which she accepts. However, instead of her usual hourly rate of $25 per hour, she is to be paid $8 an hour. She would make the argument that she was entitled to some of the difference as part of her disability benefits. In this example, however, suppose Acme Corp. decides to fire her as her performance was not up to par. Because the separation of employment was purportedly because of her performance, the employer would argue that she is no longer entitled to benefits because she is out of work for reasons not due to her injury.
Courts in South Carolina have come down on both sides of this issue where there are very similar facts. The bottom line here is that the courts do allow an employee to be terminated and benefits ended if the employee is out of work for reasons other than illness or injury. However, most courts will heavily scrutinize an employer’s motivation in terminating an employee who is receiving temporary disability benefits. This is because it is often far too easy for an employer to come up with a pretext to fire an employee rather than pay disability benefits.
If you have been injured at work and then subsequently terminated while on disability, you need to contact an attorney. Only a skilled and experienced workers’ compensation attorney can navigate the incredibly confusing landscape that exists around these issues. Dan Pruitt has been representing Upstate South Carolina workers for more than two decades. Call his firm at (864) 232-4273 today to set up your free consultation. You’ve already been hurt and you don’t need to suffer anymore at the hands of an unscrupulous employer.