Compelled by Injury to Retire, Long-time Tile Setter can still Reap WC Benefits


Kingston, PA ( -- In Pennsylvania, voluntary retirement generally ends an employee’s right to benefits.   

But “voluntary” is a matter of interpretation, as the court explained in Hi-Tech Flooring v. Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, No. 12 C.D. 2020 (Pa. Commw. Ct.  08/09/22). There, a tile setter helped his case when he mentioned that tile setting was pretty much the only thing he knew how to do. 

The company sought to terminate the employee’s workers’ compensation benefits after the employee took a union pension and social security disability benefits. 

The court pointed out that a worker’s voluntary retirement typically ends their right to benefits. But it’s not always cut and dry whether the decision was voluntary, or whether circumstances compelled it.  

In determining whether a worker’s retirement is voluntary, the court explained, Pennsylvania courts consider the totality of the circumstances. Factors that could indicate the worker voluntarily retired are: 1) his acceptance of a retirement pension; and 2) his refusal of suitable employment within his medical restrictions. 

At first glance, it may have appeared the employee left the workforce willingly. But in fact, what other choice did he have? The court noted that because of his right knee contusion—an injury whose impact was ongoing—the tile setter could not do the job that he had been doing for three decades.  

The court added that the tile setter’s doctor confirmed that the knee injury was ongoing and prevented the worker from engaging in his pre-injury work. The medical documentation backed that up; it showed that the worker suffered from ongoing right knee pain since the time of the injury.  

While the employee may have stated that he was not looking for work, the court observed, that statement was not conclusive evidence that he was voluntarily retiring. In fact, the evidence showed that he stopped looking for work because his impairment prevented him from taking on a suitable job. 

The court also noted that the worker did not suffer from any injury other than the one sustained at work. “If a WCJ finds that a claimant suffers from a work injury and no other non-work-related medical condition, then the receipt of Social Security Disability benefits can mean only that the claimant's work injury has forced him or her out of the labor market,” the court wrote. 

The court added that the employee’s SSD benefits were based on the work-related injury and his lack of transferrable skills, which prevented him from working. 

“Furthermore, the [tile setter] credibly testified that ‘[a]ll he really kn[ew] how to do [wa]s to set tile,’” the court wrote. 

As a result, the court held, the totality of the circumstances showed that the employee was forced to take a pension and disability benefits because of a disability—not that he desired to exit the workforce. 

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