BACKGROUND: An injury at work can result in a change in jobs or employers, unemployment, or withdrawal from the labor force. Substantial life changes can occur, often mediated by the initial attempt to return to employment. METHODS: This study uses ethnographic interviews of 204 workers injured in Florida. RESULTS: The study describes three paths to reemployment taken by the injured workers. The "welcome back" path provides workers with a sense of being valued by their preinjury employers. This positive effect remains, even for those who are unable to continue working because of limitations imposed by their injuries. Other paths cause workers to feel undervalued, as discarded or damaged goods, and generate hostility and resentment. Females in all groups are less likely to be currently working. White males were more likely than other groups to be employed in skilled jobs and are also the most likely to return to light-duty jobs and to remain in their preinjury jobs over time. CONCLUSIONS: Half of the workers in this study experience employer indifference or hostility in response to their attempts to return to work after an occupational back injury. After injury, there are both commonalities and meaningful disparities in post-injury experiences of White, Black, and Hispanic male and female workers.