Exclusively from Foa & Son
Employers have long understood that the key to controlling WC costs is to control claims. A valuable tool for that purpose has always been an effective return to work (RTW) program. The goal of an RTW program is simple: keep an injured employee in the work force with modified duties that reflect temporary physical limitations due to their injury. Sitting around at home on a couch isn’t good for anyone; most people do better if they have a routine and destination to go to each day. If an employee can come back to work in some limited capacity it benefits both employer and employee.
Like anything else, an RTW program needs management attention and must be run effectively to make it worthwhile. Here are a few common pitfalls to avoid.
Failure to distinguish between “light duty”, “transitional work” and “reasonable accommodation.” The definition of these terms is complicated and confusing. “Light duty” is a term commonly used, but in fact the better term is “modified duty”, since work must be modified to fit the injured employee’s physical limitations while they recover. Occupational RTW assignments are best described as transitional tasks. Limited in duration, such tasks help the injured worker return to full productivity by being progressively adjusted in line with medically documented changes in the employee’s ability. This is not “reasonable accommodation” under the ADAAA, these are specific time limited jobs designed to aid an employee recovering from an injury.
Failing to set up transitional assignments for fear the employee may get hurt again. Both employer and employee fear of re-injury can hamper RTW efforts. It’s a real risk, but an even greater risk is having the employee stay at home and develop a “disability attitude” that extends their absence and drives up costs. The right timeline and transitional process for an employee to return to work is best done on a case-by-case basis. 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.
Failing to set goals and time limits. A modified work assignment made as part of an RTW program is a transitional work assignment. The intent is to keep an injured employee gainfully employed within their physical limitations while they proceed through the recovery progress toward a full return to normal duty. That means there is a time limit and an end point. It’s not uncommon for employees to get comfortable with their modified duty assignment, but if recovery is not progressing, or full recovery leaves the employee with an impairment that precludes them from resuming their job, the RTW program is no longer appropriate and other management strategies must be considered.
RTW programs do impose an additional management burden on the employer to make modified work available and to monitor the injured employee’s progress, but the payoff in quicker recovery and lower claim cost is indisputable and makes the additional management work well worth the effort.