The most compelling arguments in favor of a well-considered return-to-work program can often be found in either of two places:
- The financial and emotional wreckage that can befall a worker discarded by their employer after being hurt on the job;
- A dispassionate analysis of claims statistics.
We prefer the latter. One such analysis, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses across all industries in 2020. That’s down slightly from 2019 but is obviously still a huge number.
Even without considering the current labor shortage, that figure also clearly suggests that, beyond planning and conducting more safety trainings for employees, getting your company’s Return-to-Work program in shape should be a top priority.
Simply stated, a return-to-work program allows employees who take leave from work after an injury or because of an illness to adjust back into the workplace while they are recovering.
Your return-to-work process needs to be explicit, with a clear outline of expectations and responsibilities for both the employer and employee.
It should also include a process for determining the necessary accommodations someone will need to return to work based on the clear requirements and essential functions of the job to which they are returning.
Improvising the above is asking for trouble.
Returning to Work on a Modified Track
One of the best ways to accommodate an injured employee and help them recover while keeping your claim costs down is to offer them modified work tasks.
Modified duty is a temporary situation that occurs when an injured worker can perform some, but not all, of their regular job tasks.
It may include modifying their essential or nonessential tasks, changing work conditions or physically modifying the work place.
Other accommodations to consider include flexible work hours, rest areas, and telecommuting.
Here’s what else you’ll need to think about to make sure yours is a solid return-to-work program:
- Consider assigning a return-to-work coordinator to facilitate communication between you, the employee, medical providers, workers’ compensation and disability insurers, and others.
- Letters and forms to document actions taken to facilitate a return to work.
- Tools to track absences.
- A liaison authorized to communicate between company managers and medical providers. (That coordinator would be a good option for this task.)
- A system for identifying alternative jobs and modified duties.
- Training for supervisors and co-workers.
If you’re worried about the expense of doing all that, the Job Accommodation Network has estimated over 50 percent of accommodations do not cost employers a dime. When there is a cost, it’s on average $600. Now compare that to the expense of identifying, hiring and training someone new.
A couple more important notes in all this:
While there are disability guidelines that offer projections on how long it typically takes for an injured worker to return to work, there’s no exact science or formula for this. This is, in the end, a question best left to the treating physician and the injured worker.
Of course, an employee can be relieved of duty entirely if they’re unable to perform the job. But be careful here. There are a number of thresholds that employers must cross before taking that route.
Lastly, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, it is illegal for the employee’s direct supervisor to contact the physician to double-check anything the employee tells you. Only your HR representative or, again, a leave administrator is allowed to do that.
The Mahoney Group, based in Mesa, Ariz., is one of the largest independent insurance and employee benefits brokerages in the nation. For more information about workers’ compensation insurance, contact us online or call 480-730-4920.
This article is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice.