WARNING! Returning To Work From Disability Can Be Difficult!

After months of being on short-term disability for her second foot surgery, Tori was recently approved to head back to work with no restrictions. YAY! To say we were both excited would be a massive understatement.

Tori was excited to get back to work and the challenges that her work as a nurse provide her every day. After all, sitting around the house for months, many of which she couldn’t put any weight on her foot, is not as fun as many would think it would be. Unfortunately, she’d run into a challenge before she even made it back to work.

Naturally, we were both excited about the financial benefits of Tori returning to work, too. While Tori was on disability she only received 80% of her technical 0.83 Full Time Employee status (which equates to 26.56 hours pay per week)  despite the fact that she often worked 40+ hours in any given week. We were fine financially, but it will be nice to be able to pay more toward her student loans when her income gets back to normal. But that didn’t happen as planned either.

Now that Tori was cleared to go back to work, we thought she’d be making money and taking paychecks to the bank as soon as her back to work date arrived. That’s where we made our mistake and we’re going to share our story so that you won’t fall into the same trap.

The Red Flags We Missed

Tori met with her human resources department prior to her second foot surgery to see how it would affect her job. The meeting was successful in our opinion. Her HR department said that they would reemploy her at her place of work upon her return from surgery in a nursing position of some sort, but her current position wasn’t guaranteed.

Her HR department said to simply inform them 2 weeks before her return to work date and she’d be able to start on her return to work date. We didn’t get anything human resources said in writing and that was the first red flag we missed.

If you’re out on disability longer than FMLA leave allows (12 weeks), then your job is not guaranteed to be there for you when you return. Due to the nature of Tori’s foot surgery, she was out for longer than 12 weeks. In fact, she was out of work for nearly 5 months! That was the second HUGE red flag we missed.

Getting Your Job Back Isn’t Guaranteed

In case you didn’t get the drift, Tori didn’t get to go back to work on her return to work date. Tori was proactive and told her human resources department of her return to work date as soon as she found out, which was nearly a month and a half in advance.

Despite the generous amount of time Tori gave to her human resources department, her return to work date came and went and she was still at home on the couch with no position and no pay. She had to use a week of her paid vacation time in order to receive any money at all and she definitely wasn’t taking a vacation.

In fact, her human resources department was treating her like any other person interviewing for a job, rather than giving her the promised position. Tori had to take another drug test, pass another background check and actually interview for multiple positions within the hospital. They even made her interview for the same exact position she left. She wasn’t guaranteed to be picked for any of the positions, including her old position.

Another week went by, this time there was no more vacation time to take and there was no pay. Luckily, this was the last week Tori would have to go without pay because, at the end of the week, she was offered a couple of different positions which she gratefully accepted. Two full weeks after her back to work date, Tori was finally back to work.

Lessons To Learn From Our Experience

Lesson #1: Just because you’re cleared to go back to work doesn’t mean you’ll have a job waiting for you. We’re lucky that Tori was offered a position only two weeks later than we expected. If there were no open positions she could have had to wait even longer!

Lesson #2: Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Once we knew that Tori wouldn’t be able to take any more vacation time, we knew her pay was no longer part of our income for the foreseeable future. We didn’t have a crystal ball and had no clue when she’d return to work.

Lesson #3: Have an emergency fund. We do have an emergency fund which would have covered us for quite a while, but we immediately cut back on any extra discretionary spending. We were preparing for the worst case that she might not work for months.

What would you have done if you were in our position? Would you have had some savings to get you through the time with no income?

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About Lance Cothern

Lance Cothern, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licensed in the Commonwealth of Virginia, is the founder of Money Manifesto. You can read more about him here or connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest.


  1. I am a teacher. One of my student’s parents had the same issue, but was fired when he returned. The company said that they were going in a “different” direction.
    Very sad especially since the student’s mother was hit by a car the year before and I was out of work herself for months.

  2. Yikes. I’m glad she ended up getting a position but I’m sure that was really stressful. I’m supposed to have hip surgery in the near future and I SHOULD only be out a few weeks but sometimes crazy things happen. This info is good to know!

  3. That is very unfortunate! But great that she was able to find a position so soon. I think you should have also added to get whatever HR tells you in writing. Probably signed. And make sure to check their wording. You hinted towards this in the red flags portion, but it was not stated in the lessons. It might not be completely binding, but it could help out a lot.

  4. I’m glad that she’s finally able to get back to work! I’m sure she is relieved. We have savings to help us through something like that but I wouldn’t have been happy about using it!

  5. Glad that Tori was able to get back go work relatively quickly even if it was tougher than you thought it would be. Seems like a lot of people assume their jobs will be there for them after FMLA or disability time off when that’s not necessarily the case…

  6. Glad to hear her foot is doing better, but sorry work is being a stink about it. I think a lot of people forget thus subtle point about their jobs. Especially in a larger corporately owned environment, the HR trolls will have no problem throwing the letter of law back at you and making you jump through hoops to get your old spot back again. And even then it may not be the same job or position! I hope everything works out for the better for you two.

  7. Bryce @ Save and Conquer says:

    I’m glad you had savings to get you through Tori’s disability period. We have a year’s worth of expenses in a CD ladder. (And we have more than another year’s worth in i-bonds if it came to it.) I will keep in mind what you said about getting any HR promises in writing. Unfortunately, what they say by word-of-mouth is not always the same as what the actual policies are.

  8. I didn’t realise that it could be so difficult to get back into your old job after taking time off for disability. The emergency fund is definitely a good idea for situations like this. Well worth having. Glad Tori is back at work!

  9. Disability is complicated! Returning to work can be too. Employers are concerned about liability etc. despite their desire for employees to return to work. Having some savings is always the way to go for those unplanned situations.

  10. Wow, now that’s a horrible position to be in. Savings are indeed a great idea, exactly for such problems like this one. Fortunately for her she did get back to a paid position and pretty soon, otherwise it would have been worse.

  11. Wow. I think that’s really messed up that theymade her interview for the same job. O never knew they could do that.

  12. Hey Lance,
    Glad your wife is able to get back to work. My wife is also a nurse, with all the heavy lifting she does I always worry about her back.

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