Slideshows

10 costly return-to-work mistakes

1. Failing to effectively manage employees covered by the ADA. 1. Failing to effectively manage employees covered by the ADA.

While the ADA doesn't prohibit employers from having a maximum leave policy, exceptions to the policy must be made on a case-by-case basis to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities. Also, a program that limits the availability of transitional jobs to a certain class of workers — those who are injured on the job — risks violating the ADA unless there is a legitimate business reason for doing so. Properly structured, RTW programs can decrease the ADA exposure. [Image: Shutterstock]

2. Insisting employees be released to “full duty” before returning to work. 2. Insisting employees be released to “full duty” before returning to work.

Insisting on a return to “full duty” increases workers’ comp costs and heightens the possibility of “disability syndrome” — the failure to return to work when it is medically possible. In 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Supervalu Inc., American Drug Stores and Jewel Food Stores Inc. violated the ADA with inflexible leave policies that prohibited employees on one-year paid disability leave from returning to work unless they could return without any accommodation. [Image: Shutterstock]

3. Failing to account for comorbidities. 3. Failing to account for comorbidities.

Comorbidities — health issues like obesity or depression that complicate or delay an employee’s recovery — significantly increase workers’ comp costs. Historically, workers’ comp has shouldered much of the cost for treating comorbidities. Although the cost may shift under health care reform, it’s too early to determine the overall impact on the bottom line. Since chronic conditions are major drivers of workers’ comp, health and disability costs, proactive employers are expanding preventive care and wellness initiatives. [Image: Thinkstock]

4. Providing insufficient RTW funds and/or resources. 4. Providing insufficient RTW funds and/or resources.

While RTW programs have not escaped cost-cutting pressures during the sputtering economic recovery, the direct and indirect costs of absences as well as the exposure of noncompliance with federal and state regulatory and statutory requirements is likely to be far more costly than implementing an RTW program. And the longer an employee is out of work, the less likely they are to return. [Image: Thinkstock]

5. Lacking transitional assignments. 5. Lacking transitional assignments.

Employer and employee fear of re-injury often hampers RTW efforts. Guided by the goal of safely returning the employee to their pre-injury job, employers who work and stay in touch with the employee, the treating physician, and supervisor are most successful. [Image: Thinkstock]

6. Muddying the distinctions between “light duty,” “transitional work” and “reasonable accommodation.” 6. Muddying the distinctions between “light duty,” “transitional work” and “reasonable accommodation.”

Occupational RTW assignments are best described as “transitional.” Limited in duration, such tasks help an injured worker return to full productivity by being adjusted in line with medically documented changes in the employee’s ability. Under the ADA, employers may reserve “light-duty” jobs for those with work-related disabilities; these jobs should be distinct from transitional tasks. “Reasonable accommodations” involve changes to a job so that a person with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job. [Image: Shutterstock]

7. Relying on physicians to guide the RTW process. 7. Relying on physicians to guide the RTW process.

While physicians are medical experts, they do not have essential information about workplace policies, job demands and the availability of transitional work. Moreover, if a physician’s training is not specifically in treating occupational injuries, they may not adhere to evidence-based guidelines. [Image: Thinkstock]

8. Failing to understand how laws conflict. 8. Failing to understand how laws conflict.

The overlapping and often conflicting requirements of the ADA, workers’ comp, the Family and Medical Leave Act and a plethora of state laws are an administrative nightmare. There are differences in eligibility, leave lengths, job reinstatement requirements, access to medical information, fit-for-duty certifications and so on. This quagmire adds to the challenge of integrating occupational and nonoccupational RTW. [Image: Thinkstock]

9. Losing focus of program goals. 9. Losing focus of program goals.

The ultimate goal of an RTW program transitioning workers back to their pre-injury job. Whether it’s a result of a poorly managed program, lack of knowledge or fear of violating a law, some employees remain in a reduced-productivity position too long — or indefinitely. An Integrated Benefits Institute survey revealed a RTW focus on the employee's own job, modified as necessary, ranked as the most important factor in successful RTW. Requiring mandatory participation was the second most important program feature affecting RTW success. [Image: Shutterstock]

10. Believing workers’ compensation settlements resolve other liabilities. 10. Believing workers’ compensation settlements resolve other liabilities.

One size does not fit all. Obligations under the various laws are reconciled separately. During settlement negotiations, close coordination is necessary between the company's legal, risk management and HR/benefits departments to ensure that each office is able to accomplish its mandate without compromising employees’ rights. [Image: Shutterstock]

By lowering the length and duration of time away from work due to injuries and illnesses on or off the job, return-to-work programs have reduced workers’ compensation, disability and medical insurance costs as well as strengthened employee morale and productivity. RTW programs also have helped protect employers from lawsuits regarding regulatory non-compliance, particularly related to the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, RTW programs aren't without pitfalls. Kevin Ring, director of community growth for the Institute of WorkComp Professionals,outlines 10 mistakes that can derail your RTW effort.

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