By: Matthew Hard
Holding: The Appellate Court reversed the Circuit Court’s decision and vacated their remand order. The Appellate Court also vacated the Commission’s decisions in part and remanded the whole cause for further proceedings consistent with this decision.
Facts: Claimant worked as a stationary engineer for Jackson Park Hospital. The position required her to address all maintenance issues throughout the hospital, including HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and other duties. On October 25, 2005, while attempting to gain access to a locked office through a sliding glass window, Claimant stepped onto a desk chair that rolled away from her causing her to fall to the ground while twisting her body. She immediately experienced pain in her left lower back and also in her left leg and knee.
After the accident, Claimant underwent medical treatment for the neck, knee, and low back pain. He released her to light-duty work approximately three months after the accident with the restriction of no lifting more than 30 pounds. However, the employer was unable to comply with the light-duty restrictions. Approximately two weeks later, due to financial hardship, Claimant asked her doctor to release her to full duty, which he did.
Upon returning to work, Claimant experienced increased pain in her back and knee and was unable to continue working. Her doctor took her off work, and she was referred to another doctor for treatment of her knee. That doctor performed surgery on her knee, and following her physical therapy, Claimant was released to work in a sedentary position. However, the employer was again unable to comply with her restrictions. At this time, Claimant’s attorney moved for a 19(b) hearing where the Arbitrator awarded medical benefits, temporary total disability benefits, and penalties to Claimant for her neck/shoulder area, low back, and left leg injuries.
Following the 19(b) hearing, Claimant continued treating with physical therapy for the low back and left knee pain. Eventually, Claimant underwent a functional capacity evaluation which put her in the light physical demand level, and was unable to perform the duties required by her position as a stationary engineer. Her doctor then released her to return to work only at the sedentary level and made these restrictions permanent.
Following her release, Claimant’s employer offered her light duty in the accounting department and eventually the health department where she performed clerical-type duties at the same pay she had received as a stationary engineer. After a few months in both of these departments, Claimant was transferred to the security department where she began work as a public safety officer. Claimant was able to do this work even though she was not qualified by the employer’s standards to work in this position. Nonetheless, the employer continued to pay her to work as a public safety officer at the same rate she had received as a stationary manager, which was significantly more than any of the other public safety officers received.
The case eventually went to arbitration where the Arbitrator stated that Claimant had failed to show a diminished earning capacity due to the accident, and as such, a wage differential award was not appropriate. However, the Arbitrator did award benefits on a PPD basis. Both parties appealed and the Commission affirmed the Arbitrator’s decision. Claimant then appealed the decision to the Circuit Court which overturned the Arbitrator’s decision and ordered the Commission to enter a wage differential award. The employer appealed the Commission’s decision on remand, but the Circuit Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. The employer now appeals the Circuit Court’s final judgment.
Reasoning: The Court cited section 8(d)(1) of the Workers’ Compensation Act which lays out two requirements for a person to receive a wage-differential award. First, the person must suffer an injury that leaves them partially incapacitated from pursuing their usual and customary line of employment. Second, there must be a difference between what the person would earn in the position before the accident and what the person would be able to earn in some suitable employment or business after the accident.
Claimant’s employer did not dispute the Commission’s finding that the claimant is unable to perform her job anymore. As such, the Court then had to determine if there was a difference in the earnings. The Court stated that the Commission did not evaluate the claimant’s earning capacity. Instead, they merely looked at the employee’s wage at the time of the hearing rather than looking at any other factors to determine the effect the injury had on her earning capacity.
Upon review of that earning capacity, the Court determined that the claimant’s lack of education and inability to transfer her job skills as a stationary engineer because of her physical limitations would prevent her from getting much more than an entry-level position. The Court relied on the unrebutted expert who opined that she could expect to earn somewhere around $8 to $9 per hour in one of those entry-level positions, much less than the $23.61 she made as a stationary engineer.
The Court further stated that Claimant was not even qualified to be working as a public safety officer for her current employer. However, even if she was, other safety officers in the city made between $8 and $11 per hour, and no safety officer in the city earned anywhere close to the $23.61 she was being paid. As such, the Court determined that her earning capacity had been significantly impacted and determined that a wage differential award was appropriate.
Conclusion: Upon analyzing this case, we find one major takeaway. In determining a wage-differential award, courts will look to the loss in earning capacity, which may not necessarily mean a wage loss. In situations where a person’s restrictions make them no longer able to work in the position they were in prior to the accident, some companies may be willing to pay that person the same wage the employee was earning prior to the injury to work in a different position. However, if that employee were to leave that company for any reason, could the person find a position within their restrictions making the same wage somewhere else with their education, certifications, and experience? If the answer is no, then, the person has lost earning capacity and should be entitled to a wage differential award.