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A costly mistake: Demoting employee after workers’ comp claim

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in Firing,Human Resources

Deloris Beckwith worked for Dillard Department Stores for 25 years as an area sales manager. Most of her reviews rated her work as "very good" or "outstanding." But then she injured her back at work and filed a workers' comp claim.

Dillard asked her to return to work before her doctor released her. When she didn't show up, the company hired somebody else to fill her manager position. When she returned for light duty work, she was assigned an entry-level position. Finally she was given two choices: resign or take a permanent entry-level sales associate position with a 40 percent cut in wages and benefits.

Although two area sales managers' positions were open when Beckwith was released to work again, she was deemed ineligible because she took time off for workers' comp.

Depressed and ill, Beckwith finally resigned and sued for constructive discharge and infliction of emotional distress. She won a $3 million jury award, including attorney fees. The state Supreme Court backed her up. (Dillard Department Stores v. Beckwith, No. 31378, S.Ct. Nev., 1999)

Advice: Never discriminate against an employee because she filed a workers' comp claim.

In this case, the company thought it could defend itself by relying on the employment-at-will doctrine. But many states recognize an exception for firings that violate "public policy." For example, that means you can't take action against a worker for blowing the whistle about a safety violation, reporting for jury duty or, as in this case, filing a workers' comp claim.

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