Because Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state, unless you are working pursuant to an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement, you can be fired for nearly any reason other than, for example, discrimination on the basis of race or national origin, for refusing to do something illegal, for filing a workers’ compensation or unemployment compensation claim, or for complying with jury duty. If you are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement or individual employment contract, and you are out of work due to an on-the-job injury, you may be entitled to 12 weeks of family and medical leave if your employer is large enough to fall under the purview of the Family and Medical Leave Act and you have sufficient past work-time to qualify.
Beyond that, you have little protection.
This is why it is essential for injured Pennsylvania union workers to review their contracts carefully in the event of a work-related injury.
Some contracts have provisions that extend the period of time during which your employment is protected. Contracts may provide for 6 months, 1 year or even indefinite protection if you are disabled due to a work injury. Other contracts may provide for additional benefits in the event you are injured. For example, under Pennsylvania law there is no obligation for your employer to pay for health insurance coverage while you are missing time in connection with a work injury. Your union contact may impose upon your employer this obligation. If so, it is particularly important for you to take that into account if you are considering settling your workers' compensation case. If settling your case requires you to resign your employment, you may well have to give up any rights you may have under your collective bargaining agreement, in which case your family may lose health insurance coverage.
Some contracts have procedural protections for employees with work injuries, such as limitations on the employer’s right to independent medical examinations. Others may significantly limit the employer’s ability to offer light duty work, including seniority provisions. You may be entitled to file a grievance if your employer harasses you, a right non-unionized employees do not have. Your union may have negotiated a limitation on the fees particular attorneys may charge for representing members in a workers' compensation case.
This is not meant to be exhaustive of all the benefits that you may have under your collective bargaining agreement or under state and federal law. For example, you may be entitled to long-term disability benefits pursuant to an employer-sponsored plan. Even if you are collecting workers' compensation benefits, you may want to apply for long-term disability benefits. Though the long-term disability plan probably has a "coordination of benefits" clause that reduces long-term disability benefits by any amounts that are "paid or payable" by workers' compensation, applying for long-term disability benefits, even if you receive no net benefits, may make sense. If something goes wrong with your workers' compensation benefits, for example, you may automatically be entitled to an increase in your long-term disability benefits.
For anybody who is a member of a labor union, you need to review your contract in the event of a work injury. Furthermore, you are much better off being represented by a lawyer who is familiar with collective bargaining, union rights, and the interaction between workers’ compensation and union contracts. Over more than thirty years of fighting the labor wars, the attorneys at Fenner & Boles have drafted contract language, laws governing injuries to public employees, and articles on the interaction between pension law, workers’ compensation, and labor law. While most labor issues must be handled by the union if they cannot be resolved, it makes no sense to be represented by an inexperienced lawyer who does not know enough to even see the issues your collective bargaining agreement may raise.