A work injury doesn’t only affect your physical health. If a full recovery isn’t possible, your career path can be significantly altered. What happens if you never can return to your job? What if you are forced to work in an alternative field, or take a position in which your pay will never be as high?

Illinois workers’ compensation offers various benefits to help injured employees, including payment of 100% of reasonable and related medical expenses, and payment for 2/3 lost wages if the employee is unable to work during treatment and recovery. The goal is to help workers get back to work as soon as possible, and provide some form of continued income until that is possible.

The wage-loss benefit is calculated using the “average weekly wage” the worker was earning in the year leading up to their injury. It might sound like a simple calculation, but there are several ways in which it can get complicated. A recent Illinois workers’ compensation case considered what happens when a worker was in the process of training for a new, higher-paid job. Should the wage-loss benefits be based on the job they were trained for but never actually held?

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission recently decided the case of a worker who was completing a cement mason apprenticeship. She was injured sometime during the apprenticeship, but went on to complete the program. She then completed classes and received a certificate for journeyman status. However, her injury prevented her from actually working as a cement mason.

The final decision by the Commission was that the worker’s benefits should be based on cement mason wages because she had completed all the steps toward attaining journeyman status as a cement mason. In other words, it was safe to assume that she would have been making those wages had she not been injured. The other side said it was too speculative and pointed to another case where the increased wages were denied. In that case, however, there was less evidence because the worker hadn’t taken the exam required to become a journeyman plumber, nor did he testify that he intended to do so.

It’s a fine line, but an important one for those who have spent significant time training for a job in which they can no longer have a career.

By Michael Helfand