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Longtime Safety Policy Trumps Workers Personal Needs

July 15, 2011
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An employer does not have to change its long-standing safety policy to accommodate personal needs of an employee returning to work from an injury, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has ruled.

In deBoer Transportation Inc. vs. Charles Swenson, Swenson suffered a work-related knee injury in August 2005 as a truck driver. After returning to work in January 2006, he sought an accommodation to care for his terminally ill father, according to court records.

As Swenson was his father’s primary caregiver, he requested deBoer to modify a 20-year requirement that all drivers off work for more than two months, regardless of the reason, be accompanied by another driver on a “check-ride” to regain safety skills before returning to the job.

While Swenson typically drove local routes that allowed him to be home daily, he was told the check-ride trip could last several days. So he asked his employer to pay for a nurse or find someone to train him locally, according to the ruling.

When the company declined the request, he refused to go on the check-ride trip and deBoer “discharged” Swenson, the opinion states. He sought workers’ compensation benefits, alleging the company unreasonably refused to rehire him.

An administrative law judge concluded that deBoer applied its check-ride policy as a pretext to refuse to rehire Swenson.

On appeal, a review commission concluded that deBoer’s refusal to rehire Swenson “evinced an unreasonable disregard for the applicant’s circumstances, leading to the credible inference that the work injury did play a part in the discharge.”

A circuit court affirmed, but an appeals court ruled that employers do not have to assess which requests not related to a work injury merit accommodations and that it was reasonable under Wisconsin state law for deBoer to refuse to adjust its policy.

In its ruling July 12, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court and remanded the case for dismissal. The high court said Wisconsin law does not require employers to change legitimate business policies to assist employees in meeting personal obligations.

In a dissent, however, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote that a reasonable person could infer that deBoer engineered the details of the check-ride trip to force Swenson’s refusal.

Filed by Roberto Ceniceros of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

 

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