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Workers' Compensation Newsletter

Overview of Return-to-Work Programs

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Workers’ Compensation is in a state of crisis which “can no longer be ignored.” Payment of Workers’ Compensation claims has been found to have been growing faster than other costs for most companies. As a result, the DOL has recommended that companies engage in effective disability management programs to help alleviate some of the growing costs associated with Workers’ Compensation claims. One such initiative is a “return to work” program which allows injured or disabled employees to return to their jobs earlier than scheduled, but with reduced or modified duties.

State Workers’ Compensation Law and the ADA

Workers’ Compensation, which is designed to provide assistance to employees “injured” on the job, is governed by individual state law and thus varies nationwide. In addition, federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against “disabled” employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, an employee is “disabled” if they are impaired to an extent that “substantially limits a major life activity,” or if they have a “record of,” or are “regarded as,” having such an impairment, but can still perform the “essential functions” of the job with reasonable accommodation.

Thus, an “injured” employee that receives Workers’ Compensation must also be “disabled” to be protected under the ADA, but a company’s disability management program should comply with both applicable state and federal law.

Return to Work Programs

One of the ways in which a company can seek to reduce skyrocketing Workers’ Compensation costs for injured employees is to implement a “return to work program.” In general, a return to work program allows an employee that is “injured” on the job to return to work before they are completely recovered by being assigned smaller, different, or “transitional” tasks. Such a program also complies with the ADA which forbids employers from requiring a “disabled” employee to reach full recovery before returning to work. In essence, the employee is able to remain active at work while they recover. Return to work programs may involve one or some combination of the following:

  • Temporary reassignment of the employee to a completely different job with lighter physical demands;
  • Performance of the regular job at less than full productivity; and/or
  • Performance of the regular job that has been redesigned to fit physical/medical restrictions

In addition to possibly reducing payment for Workers’ Compensation claims, return to work policies provide several benefits to both employers and employees.

Employer benefits from return to work programs include:

  • Reduction of fraudulent Workers’ Compensation claims
  • Increased morale by allowing employees to keep a routine, and to maintain self-worth and productivity
  • Minimal case management in short and long-term disability cases
  • Decreased medical and lost work-day costs
  • Eliminated or minimized costs of hiring and training a replacement employee

Employee benefits from return to work programs include:

  • Increased recuperation
  • Lowered disruption to an employee’s normal routine and income
  • Maintained social contact and lowered rates of depression
  • Lowered possibility of re-injury through a controlled work environment

Successful Return to Work Programs – Amtrak

In response to increased cost of workplace injuries and Workers’ Compensation benefits, employers have already implemented new workplace initiatives. For example, Amtrak created the “Right Care … Day One” program that may now be considered a “nationwide model for a successful return to work program.”

The Right Care … Day One program places recovering employees that were injured on the job in volunteer positions at nonprofit organizations. This allows Amtrak employees to get back on track by keeping them active and productive while simultaneously providing much needed services to nonprofit organizations. Amtrak’s policy is to ensure that its employees, injured on the job, receive the best care possible from “day one” or, from the date of injury, until they have successfully recovered and returned to work. Amtrak provides just one creative example of how return to work policies might aid in combating the Workers’ Compensation crisis.

Federal Workplace – SHARE

Mounting Workers’ Compensation costs is not a problem that is unique to private employers. Federal workplace injures, when measured by Workers’ Compensation losses, are costing billions of dollars per year. In January, 2004, President Bush established a disability management program called SHARE: Safety, Health, and Return-to-Employment Initiative, in an effort to ameliorate the cost problem. SHARE is a three year program designed to establish challenging annual goals that will increase safety and health in the Federal workforce and decrease costs. As one of its goals, the initiative seeks to guide Federal employers to provide suitable work and tools for injured and disabled employees.

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