Sustaining a work injury can be a jarring event for the employee and employer. In some cases, healing and returning to work is not easy. It is estimated that 30% of injuries will result in a loss of time from work.
When the employee has developed a comfort level with being out of work, it is a big hurdle on the path to claim resolution. Research suggests that employees more than six months out of work have less than 50% chance of ever returning.
One way to avoid this situation is by using Return to Work (RTW) programs that integrate the employee back into the workplace as soon as possible. This is often referred to as “light duty” or “modified duty”; at AEU, we prefer the term “transitional duty”, with the expectation that the worker will eventually transition back to their usual and customary position.
According to the Rand Institute for Civil Justice, RTW programs can reduce missed time by 3.6 weeks, thus reducing workers’ compensation costs, an estimated average savings of $2,750 on a longshore claim. It’s also important to remember that most employees who are injured on the job want to come back to work – a 2014 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that 80 to 90% of injured workers would rather return to work than receive disability.
Below are six guidelines for developing and implementing a successful RTW program.
1) Define your policy. Make sure you develop written procedures. According to the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) and UC Berkeley, the process should include:
- Employer obtaining clear capabilities from a physician
- Identifying essential job functions
- Evaluating any accommodations needed (e.g., a stool to sit, part-time hours)
- Monitoring progress
2) Keep up communication. Present the available transitional duty position in writing to employee with confirmed receipt as to verify your formal offer. Verify understanding from your front-line supervisors. Correspond with your claims specialist to make sure workers’ compensation benefits have ceased accordingly. And always be aware of any changes from the treating physician.
3) Don’t forget about union agreements. For companies dealing with a union environment, be familiar with your options under union contracts and collective bargaining agreements. The worker may have enough seniority to apply for clerking off the casual labor board, for example.
4) Avoid creating a job that is non-essential and may be considered “sheltered employment.” For sedentary and light duty, find a job that would have to be done anyway, such as working in a tool room, sorting parts, checking lights and lines, or roles such as security, firewatch, floater or maintenance.
5) Offer words of encouragement. If an employee complains or expresses concerns about his or her placement, then consider a few words of encouragement or re-evaluate accommodations, within reason. Since intentions can sometimes get lost in verbal communication, you might consider using a written restriction form that both the employee and supervisor sign, keeping everyone on the same page.
6) Consider a cap. Some programs limit the period for transitional duty, such as 90 days or 12 weeks. When there is a cap, the employer is not burdened, and the employee does not become complacent. This way, everyone understands the transitional nature.
What about permanent placement?
Employee satisfaction and potential cost savings are even higher for permanent placement, but it’s important to follow the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) which were effective January 1, 2009.
Businesses with 15 or more payroll employees must follow the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding ADAAA. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a current disability as a medical condition or disorder (called an impairment) that substantially limits a person in doing basic activities (called major life activities). It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations if it doesn’t cause undue hardship to them. An employee must advise his or her employer to provide an adjustment or change at work due to a medical condition. An employer never has to provide an accommodation that would cause undue hardship (meaning significant difficulty or expense) which includes removing an essential function of the job.
Implementing a placement program is a win-win situation
A transitional duty program benefits both the employee and the employer. The employee enjoys a culture of caring and socialization along with adhering to a routine, being productive, and earning income. The company retains the experience of that employee and avoids turnover.