Many employers use temporary light duty assignments to enable ill or injured employees to return to work before they are fully healed. In fact, rehabilitation specialists will tell you that it is better for both the employee and the employer for one to return to work sooner on a modified assignment than to wait until full recovery. Is an employer required to offer light duty to an ill or hurt employee out on Family and Medical Leave Act leave, or can an employer require an employee to remain on FMLA leave until full recovery? According to James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago (7th Cir. 2/13/13), light duty is not a right to which employees can insist under the FMLA.
Carris James spent his 22-year career with the Hyatt Regency Chicago as a banquet steward. In March 2007, he suffered a non-work-related eye injury and required surgery. The company offered him FMLA leave, which he accepted. Before his medical leave ended (which his collective bargaining agreement had extended beyond the FMLA's required 12 weeks), James faxed a note from one of his physicians, which stated that James could return to work with certain lifting and bending restrictions. Those restrictions would have prevented him from returning to his banquet steward position. When Hyatt refused to offer light duty, James sued.
James argued that Hyatt interfered with his FMLA entitlement when it did not reinstate him to a light duty position. The court disagreed. It relied on the plain language of the FMLA's regulations: "If the employee is unable to perform an essential function of the position because of a physical or mental condition … the employee has no right to restoration to another position under the FMLA." Because light duty is not an "equivalent" position, the FMLA does not mandate restoration to a light duty position. It only protects employees who can return and perform all of the essential functions of their position. Because James's doctor only released him to light duty, the company had no obligation under the FMLA to bring him back to work.
While the answer to this issue under the FMLA is fairly straight forward, often times the Americans with Disabilities Act will dictate a different result. Before denying light duty to an employee returning from FMLA leave, you must consider whether the ADA requires the light duty as a reasonable accommodation. If you have light duty available, and do not have to create a light duty position to accommodate the employee, the ADA will likely require the consideration of temporary light duty as a reasonable accommodation.