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Rhode Island case provides cautionary tale for injured workers
By Deborah G. Kohl, Esq.
In a cautionary tale, an injured worker can lose his job even while undergoing approved medical treatment while on weekly benefits and even when covered under a union Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Act provides a right of reinstatement for injured workers to return to their former jobs. But that right must be exercised within a specific time frame. The ultimate question posed to the Superior Court was not whether the provisions of the CBA trump statutory provisions but rather the appropriate forum for litigation of reinstatement cases in Rhode Island.
See Town of Cumberland v. Cumberland Town Employees Union, 2017 R.I. Super. LEXIS 38 (Feb. 23, 2017).
Norman Tremblay worked for the Town of Cumberland, Rhode Island as a light equipment operator. On August 5, 2014, Mr. Tremblay injured his ankle and began receiving weekly workers’ compensation benefits. At the time of his injury he was a union employee and covered under a collective bargaining agreement. No one from the Town told him that he needed to request a leave of absence or that there was a time limit within which he had to return to work.
Unfortunately for Mr. Tremblay RIGL 28-33-47 while allowing for reinstatement of injured workers to their former jobs places a time limitation on that right. Injured workers must request the reinstatement within one year from the date of injury or 30 days from maximum medical improvement whichever comes first. Mr. Tremblay underwent surgery in June of 2015 and was neither at MMI nor ready to return to work in August of 2015.
On November 10, 2015, the Town wrote to him terminating his right to reinstatement under the RI Workers’ Compensation Act based on his inability to return to his employment during the statutory one year period.
Mr. Tremblay filed a grievance on November 13, 2015 arguing that he had been terminated without just cause in violation of the CBA. The grievance wound its way through the administrative process eventually arriving at an arbitration.
The arbitrator found for Mr. Tremblay reinstating him to his position. That decision was appealed to the Superior Court.
The important holding in this Superior Court decision was not whether the statute or the CBA controls the length of the leave of absence but rather where the issue could be litigated. Because the right of reinstatement is part of the Workers’ Compensation statute disputes over reinstatement are “within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Workers’ Compensation Court”. Citing R.I. All. Of Soc. Serves. Emps., 747 A.2d at 469, Judge Licht stated that “the parties to a CBA have no legal authority to contravene state law by word or deed. Thus, statutory obligations cannot be bargained away via contrary provisions in a CBA, nor can they be compromised by the past or present practices of the parties.” The arbitrator therefore had no authority to hear the case never mind authority to reinstate him to his job. Because Mr. Tremblay remained disabled after the one year period, his right under RIGL 28-33-47 to reinstatement ended and the employer properly terminated his employment. The employee’s only recourse was to the Workers’ Compensation Court and not through the CBA.
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