Alabama Workers Compensation - Part 2
C. What the Letters Mean
After the appropriate doctor has treated the employee, the doctor determines the MMI date. MMI stands for Maximum Medical Improvement or the point where the employee is as good as he/she is going to get.; The MMI date is significant because once the doctor conveys that date to the employer or insurance carrier, the employee's Temporary Total Disability (TTD) check stops. While the employee is off of work, the employer (insurance carrier) pays the employee two-thirds (2/3) of the employee's Average Weekly Wage (AWW) every week (this is the TTD). The employer determines the AWW by looking back at the employee&'s salary one year from the date of injury and averaging the amount (if you haven't worked a year, they look at the period of time you did work). The employer or its insurance carrier can really apply pressure to the employee once the MMI date is determined because if the employee cannot return to his/her job, they no longer have any income coming in to pay bills. Now, this really illustrates a hole in Alabama law.
D. Impairment Rating and Disability Rating
After reaching the MMI date, the doctor usually gives the employee an impairment rating if applicable. The doctor bases the impairment rating upon the American Medical Association (AMA) guidelines, and the impairment rating would be the same for any individual with the same injury. This impairment rating allows the employer or its insurance carrier to determine what compensation should be paid to the employee. At this point the subjective element of workers compensation enters the picture: whether the employee is entitled to a vocational disability rating or simply the impairment rating.
Now, I'm sure everyone is asking, "what is the difference between a vocational disability rating and an impairment rating?" Well, almost everyone would have the same impairment rating (unless the individual had had a previous injury or some other genetic defect). The best example I can give is the following:
Suppose a concert pianist and a right-handed lawyer each lost their left hand. They would each have the same impairment rating - whatever the AMA guidelines state the impairment is for the loss of a hand. However, their vocational disability ratings would differ. The concert pianist could no longer perform his/her craft; whereas, the lawyer could still practice law. Therefore, the concert pianist would have a much greater vocational disability.
The vocational disability rating takes into account the individual's educational background, work experience, and injury, and it looks at the prospects for future employment.
If the employee can return to his/her job making the same rate of pay, he/she is NOT entitled to a vocational disability rating. But, if the employee cannot return to his/her job at the same rate of pay, he/she is entitled to a vocational disability rating. This area illustrates another problem with the Alabama workers compensation laws. Given the fact that the employer can fire the employee for almost any reason, the employer could return the employee's job to him/her once the employee reaches MMI. At this point, the employee would only be entitled to compensation based upon the impairment rating, not a vocational disability rating. Six months later, the employer could lay-off or fire the employee. Now, the employee will have no recourse (unless retaliatory discharge can be shown), and other employers are less likely to hire such a "casualty".