Many employers are starting to implement return to work programs to reduce costs around workers’ compensation, motivate their workforce, and improve their productivity. From a direct cost standpoint, implementing a program could make or break a company’s experience modifier (see our article: 7 suggestions for a better return to work program).
Unnecessary delays in returning to work after an injury can negatively impact the employee and the organization. According to a recent study, workers off duty from their positions for a work-related injury for twelve weeks only have a 50% chance of returning to the workforce; that percentage decreases to 25% if they are off duty for 1 year and there is little to no chance of return if they are off duty for 2 or more years.
Statistics show that 60% of workers who are away from the job more than two weeks often experience financial trouble. An injured worker on leave will impact the organization by increasing disability costs, medical costs, and can affect productivity and morale. Further, an employer who permits lengthy leaves for work-related injuries set a precedent for leaves with persons who are similarly situated but are suffering from a non-work-related disability.
Alternatively, the benefits of an injured employee returning to work quickly are apparent: the employee continues to receive their benefits, continues to be productive, there is less administrative burden for the employer and it can reduce the overall cost of a workers’ compensation claim. A metanalysis published in Health Affairs reports that organizations can expect to save $3 to $10 for every dollar invested in return to work programs. Additionally, some states reward employers for getting employees back to work in a timely manner. In Minnesota, for example, if an employee returns to work within the 3-day waiting period before the wage benefit kicks in, it will keep the claim “medical-only” and the state will reduce the cost of the claim by 70% on the employer’s experience mod, which can contribute to lower premiums.
As more employers implement such programs, innovative strategies continue to surface. Here are creative transitional opportunities to return your injured employees quickly and safely back to work.
Light duty positions are not new. But historically, when light duty positions did not exist within an organization, employers either placed the employee on a leave of absence or, if the employer decided they wanted to return an employee to work regardless of availably light duty, it would make up some paper-pushing job.
Employers can work with a safety consultant or a third-party occupational health clinic to set up alternative light duty positions within their organizations. Depending on the size of the organization, some positions may be well-equipped to feed into other light duty jobs, while other organizations need creative alternatives for an injured worker to keep working. Engaging with a third-party occupational expert to review and discover in-house opportunities can enable employers to return employees to work faster, while still meeting their productivity and budget goals.
Rehabilitation is also not new, since many workers’ compensation jurisdictions entitle a work-injured employee to rehab if they are unable to return to their former position because of an injury. But increasingly, employers are engaging with third-party consultants earlier in the claim management process to create opportunities to return injured employees to work with the same employer, while assisting with the medical case management of the claim. Such rehabilitation is intended to restore an injured employee to a job related to their former employment or a job in another work area that produces an economic status as close as possible to the work they were performing prior to the disability. Employers are getting ahead of the process by approving the initial rehabilitation consultation as soon as they identify a challenging or lengthy recovery. This will put the employee at ease knowing that they have an advocate not only on the medical management of their claim but also in helping them transition back to full productivity. The employer benefits as well knowing that the employee will have a safe and effective return to work, helping to reduce overall costs. Employers should note – rehabilitation should not be used as a refusal to return an employee to work.
One type of return to work program is an off-site transitional duty program. Note, it is transitional because it is only meant to provide short-term work assignments for employees who have temporary medical restrictions that cannot be accommodated by their employer. Most off-site programs are structured with a third party in a way that provides meaningful and productive work at local non-profit organization. Working in a volunteer role has proved to boost physical and mental health –placing an injured worker in such a position enables them to return to work, feel productive, and hopefully, makes them eager to return to their position within the employer’s organization.
These off-site programs can also equip an employee with new skills they may need to return to work in a different position that aligns with their work restrictions and interests.
Although return to work programs are an excellent resource for employers and employees, employers must not restrict availability only to employees with workplace injuries. Such exclusivity could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and other state and federal laws. To learn more about why you want to provide these benefits to all employees, not just your workers’ compensation employees, read our article: What do the FMLA, ADA, and workers' compensation have in common? Employers can also register for our upcoming webinar on December 4, The overlap of workers’ compensation, FMLA and the ADA – What you need to know for more information.
Heather offers practical guidance and helps employers find solutions to employment law and compliance matters.
Heather educates and advises employers on all aspects of employment law, including compliance with state and federal laws, leaves of absence, discrimination, harassment, accommodations, discipline and discharge, wage and hour obligations, unfair competition, and other issues that arise in the workplace. In addition to Heather’s employment counseling, her background includes nearly a decade of litigation experience. Her prior experience includes litigating for a regional insurance company, business disputes, and employment.
In its 2014 Workplace Safety Index, Liberty Mutual estimated that employers pay just under $1 billion per week to injured employees and their medical care providers. Since even one serious workplace injury may impact the bottom line of a small or mid-size business, it is essential that employers have an effective injury and illness prevention program in place.
What can you do when your company’s workers’ compensation costs are increasing year after year? The obvious answer is to dress employees up in padded suits like the Michelin Man so there’s no way they could possibly get hurt, while tethering them together like a Kindergarten class walking on a field trip to a park. Unfortunately, such measures would hinder efficiency, and the suits would probably get pretty smelly in the summer.
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