In August, 2022 the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania provided a detailed analysis of 30 years of court decisions addressing this question in the case of Hi Tech Flooring v. WCAB (Santucci).
Generally, a claimant who has been forced into retirement as a result of a work-related injury may continue to receive workers’ compensation benefits. However, an employer may seek a suspension of those benefits where a claimant voluntarily leaves the workforce rather than being forced into retirement because of their work injury. A voluntary retirement means that any loss of earnings is not due to the work injury, but is the result of the claimant’s voluntary decision. Citing SEPTA v. WCAB (Henderson). In Henderson, the claimant received a ‘retirement’ pension, and age related Social Security benefits; rather than a disability retirement, and disability related Social Security benefits. Workers’ Compensation benefits were denied.
In City of Pittsburgh v. WCAB (Robinson) (Robinson II), The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania noted that the intent of the Workers’ Compensation Act is to benefit injured workers, and to achieve that objective, the Court held that the employer has the burden of proving that a claimant has retired. Regarding the claimant’s receipt of a pension, the Court explained: “there is no presumption of retirement arising from the fact that a claimant seeks or accepts a pension, much less a disability pension; rather, the worker’s acceptance of a pension entitles the employer only to a permissive inference that the claimant has retired.” [A presumption is a stronger basis favoring employer’s burden of proof than a permissive inference.]
In Robinson I, the Court held that an employer must show, by the totality of the circumstances, that the claimant has chosen not to return to the workforce.
If a voluntary withdraw from the entire workforce has been established, the claimant then has the burden to show (a) that claimant is looking for work or (b) has been forced to withdraw from the entire workforce because of their work-related injury – in order to avoid their wage loss benefits being suspended. However, the employer has a duty to offer work to an injured worker (if they have a job within the claimant’s capabilities), so the employer can not solely rely on the claimant’s lack of effort to look for work on their own as a basis to argue that the claimant has removed themselves from the work force. Keene v. WCAB (Ogden Corp.).
In short, the Court must consider the totality of circumstances of any given case to determine whether the claimant has voluntarily removed themselves from the work force. Among the factors the court must consider include:
- Was the Pension and/or Social Security expressly based on being disabled, vs. an age related, ‘retirement’ or some other voluntary basis?
- Does the Social Security award specify whether the work injury is the cause of claimant’s disability (vs. other medical conditions)?
- Is claimant able to work – in any capacity?
- Has the employer offered claimant a job within their capabilities?
- Is there evidence of work generally available within claimant’s capabilities?
- Has/Would claimant consider work in a job with less physical demands?
- Has claimant looked for work on their own?
- Has claimant refused a suitable job offer?
- Would claimant jeopardize entitlement to other benefits if they accepted work in a different field (ie. Union benefits/seniority)?
- Is claimant disabled from work due to non-work related conditions?
- Are the non-work-related conditions ‘more disabling’ than the work injury?
- Did the non-work related conditions pre-exist the work injury, or occur after?
If you have questions about your right to workers’ compensation benefits, or are considering other types of benefits, you NEED to discuss your rights and options with a Certified Workers’ Compensation Specialist* BEFORE you take action which might have irreversible consequences. For a free, no obligation consultation, call the Certified Specialists* at Schmidt, Kirifides & Rassias at 610-601-5399 or contact us online.
*Certification as a Specialist in the practice of Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation law pursuant to the strict testing and experience requirements established by the Pennsylvania Bar Association and Supreme Court of PA.