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Mill worker from Frenchville with Reactive Airway Disease ineligible for workers’ compensation after being forced out on early retirement

In Michaud v. Fraser Paper Limited, the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board ruled that a 66 year-old mill worker with Reactive Airway Disease from workplace chemical exposure was ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits because he accepted an early retirement package that was offered by the mill, despite the fact that his light duty office job was slated for elimination as part of a company-wide downsizing.

Raymond Michaud is a 66 year-old paper mill supervisor from Frenchville. He worked for Fraser Paper Limited in Madawaska for 30 years. In 2000, he suffered a chemical exposure at work that injured his lungs and had a long-term effect on his pulmonary health. He was medically restricted from working in the mill, as he could not be exposed to fumes and dust and could not exert himself. In 2002, the mill gave him a light duty office assignment, which was less than full-time, and which he performed for approximately one year.

In 2003, due to financial difficulties, the mill announced it would lay off 190 employees. Supervisory employees over the age of 55, including Michaud, were given the option to take early retirement, with certain incentives. Michaud accepted the early retirement package, assuming that as an older worker on a less than full-time light duty assignment, his position would be eliminated during layoffs.

Out of work, with permanent lung injuries, Michaud asked the mill to pay weekly workers’ compensation benefits. The mill refused, invoking the retiree presumption under the Workers’ Compensation Act, which states that an employee who terminates active employment and is receiving retirement benefits is presumed not to have any loss of earnings or earning capacity as a result of his compensable work injury.

The hearing officer found that Michaud had voluntarily retired which put the burden on Michaud to show that he was physically unable, because of his work-related injury, to perform any work suitable to his training and experience. Where Michaud had extensive work restrictions due to his pulmonary condition, but was not totally medically disabled from any job and had been actively working in the office for the last year, the hearing officer found that he had not overcome the presumption of voluntary retirement, and was not entitled to further weekly benefits.

While disappointing for Michaud, the hearing officer’s ruling is consistent with the Law Court’s opinion in Costales v. SD Warren, which set the standard for rebutting the retiree presumption, and with the legislative intent of Section 223 to limit recovery of workers’ compensation and retiree benefits at the same time from the same employer. It was not clear from the opinion whether Michaud would have received any severance pay had he declined to take early retirement and let the mill lay him off in the downsizing. This is an example of a decision that is legally correct, but just feels wrong.

If you have been injured at work, call Adrienne Hansen at the Maine Employee Rights Group for a free telephone consultation at 1-800-490-5218.

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