Having a service-related disability or condition can impose significant financial hardships on you and your family. These hardships persist and can grow worse if you are unable to work because of your physical or mental condition. While VA disability benefits are meant to offset these costs, you are not awarded benefits immediately upon filing your claim. At best, it can be several weeks before you begin to receive benefits. If your claim is questioned, it can be months or years before you get an approval.

As a result, you might find it necessary to seek out employment to help supplement your household income. This strategy can be a two-edged sword: while employment can help bring in money for you and your family and alleviate any strain you are feeling, it could potentially signal to the VA that your injuries are not as severe as you claim. This might result in the VA awarding a smaller amount of disability benefits.

Working in a “Protected Work Environment”

In Cantrell v. Shulkin, a case heard by the Court of Veterans Appeals, veteran was applying for VA disability benefits, specifically TDIU, or total disability based on individual unemployability. If awarded, the veteran would have received the equivalent of a 100 percent disability rating because they could not obtain or keep “substantially gainful employment.”

The issue in Cantrell was that the veteran was working for an employer who provided the veteran with certain accommodations to help them perform their job tasks. The VA claimed this arrangement showed that the veteran was capable of substantially gainful employment and was not entitled to TDIU benefits.

The veteran and his legal team countered that the accommodations provided by the employer were so unusual that it would be unreasonable to expect other employers in general to make similar accommodations. As a result, the veteran claimed their workplace was a “protected work environment” and could not be considered substantially gainful employment.

What Qualifies as a “Protected Work Environment” is Unclear

The Cantrell Court did not define a “protected work environment” but did make clear that the VA had to consider the extent of any accommodations an employer gave to a veteran. The greater the extent of accommodations, the more likely it is that the workplace qualifies as a protected work environment.

There have been subsequent cases that have touched on the subject of “protected work environments” but have not resulted in any clear definition of what a “protected work environment” actually is.

The Importance of Qualified Legal Representation

What this means for veterans is that the details of your disability and your limitations matter. Employment while awaiting a decision on your claim can either hurt or help your case; it can either demonstrate you are able to hold down work or reinforce the assertion that you are not able to find and keep employment without extraordinary accommodations most employers will not make.

Coskrey Law and our Evans VA disability lawyer Ryan Coskrey are prepared and equipped to help you present your claim to the VA and get you benefits. Contact Coskrey Law at (706) 303-1802 or by using our online form and enlist us in your pursuit of the benefits you are owed. You can also contact us by e-mail at coskrey@gmail.com.