A return-to-work program is a plan business owners put in place to help injured employees return to productive roles with the company as soon as they are medically able. This usually means creating temporary light-duty assignments workers can perform while they recuperate.
Benefits for Return-to-Work Program
Experts generally agree that a workers’ comp return-to-work policy is a win-win for the employer and their employees. For the employees, getting back to work is crucial for maintaining their standards of living. One report from Mathematica Policy Research found that the typical injured worker whose employer has a return-to-work policy earns $1,076,314 in wages and nonwage benefits between the onset of the disability to full retirement age.
What about the benefit to the employers? Creating a return-to-work program comes with some expense, most notably physical alterations to workspaces and adaptive technologies, plus the administrative costs of running the program. But employers who get injured employees back to work quickly often reduce indirect costs like:
- Wages paid for absences not covered by workers’ compensation insurance
- Administrative cost for following up on workplace injuries
- Hiring and training replacement workers
- Lost productivity related to new workers
Additionally, return-to-work programs usually have a positive impact on a business’ workers’ compensation premium. Most insurers consider your claims history when calculating workers’ comp costs, so minimizing the amount of time an injured employee receives benefits cuts their costs, and often yours as well.
Did you know? Because they are so beneficial to employers and employees alike, return-to-work policies are generally considered a workers’ compensation claims management best practice. Specific plans, however, need to be tailored to individual workers’ injuries. This doesn’t mean you can’t have an outline in place. However, you have to make sure the outline is flexible enough to accommodate unique situations.
How a Return-to-Work Program Works
Laws in many states say that an injured employee who files a workers’ compensation claim has the right to return to their previous position once their doctor approves. However, the law doesn’t always lay out a plan for making that happen. This makes it the employer’s responsibility to figure out how to best help their returning worker.
A business owner who wants to put together a return-to-work policy needs to keep three major issues in mind. The first is the various stakeholders involved in a workplace injury. This starts with the injured worker, but it can also include the injured workers’ managers and medical providers, as well as the insurance claims adjusters and benefits administrators. A good return-to-work policy facilitates communication between all of these people, often by designating a coordinator to act as the point person for all involved.
Second, a return-to-work policy has to consider the different laws that address disability in the workplace. These include:
- State workers’ compensation requirements
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
A worker who receives workers’ compensation benefits after an injury or illness may also meet the criteria laid out in the ADA or FMLA. Business owners need to be aware of the requirements of all three before creating a plan for returning injured employees to work.
Finally, a return-to-work program should include two types of assignments, each of which may be appropriate in different situations. These assignments are:
- Light duty: Assigning tasks that are less demanding than the employee’s usual responsibilities like allowing a warehouse worker to answer phones
- Limited duty: Reducing or restricting tasks to fit the injured employee’s physical limitations like limiting the weight the employee is allowed to carry or the number of hours they’re required to work
How to Set Up a Return-to-Work Program
One of the main goals of any return-to-work program is to retain talent. Unfortunately, the likelihood of an injured employee returning to work drops 50% after the 12th week of leave, according to a report from IMPAQ International, so you don’t want to wait until an employee is injured to develop your program. Below are a few of the important steps you’ll need to take to get your program off the ground.
- Consult an expert: Your program needs to be compliant with both state and federal laws, so you should discuss how these interact with either a lawyer or human resources (HR) professional before you decide on the basics.
- Develop a written policy: You want a policy that explains your program’s goals, defines temporary alternative assignments, and identifies who is eligible for the program. Once it is written down, you can share it with employees and address them as needed.
- Review your company’s job descriptions: Every job in your company should have a description that clearly defines its essential functions and its mental or physical requirements. Having these make it easier to determine appropriate light-duty tasks.
- Create a list of light-duty assignments: Some employers like to have a bank of potential light-duty assignments prepared in case a worker suffers an injury. Often, the jobs are tasks that employees would do if they had more time like checking safety equipment or creating training manuals.
- Consider selecting preferred healthcare providers: Whether you can point an injured worker to a particular healthcare provider depends on state law. However, you can usually offer them the names of preferred doctors, hospitals, and emergency rooms. Look for medical providers with experience in treating occupational injuries, as this can help control costs.
- Appoint a coordinator: Designating a point of contact for you, your insurer, your employee, and your employee’s physician streamlines communication while also facilitating compliance.
- Design a sign-off form: You want a form that the employee can sign to indicate they’ve accepted the temporary modifications to their position. It should have space to list the employee’s new tasks and their start date as well as the consequences for not accepting them.
Helpful Resources for Developing a Return-to-Work Program
The first place to go if you need help setting up a workers’ comp return-to-work policy and program is your insurer. Most top workers’ compensation insurance companies offer assistance and even instruction because they want their policyholders to have fewer claims, too. Other helpful resources include:
- The Council of State Governments Stay-at-work/Return-to-work Toolkit
- The Job Accommodation Network Workplace Accommodation Toolkit
- Your state’s workers’ compensation board
Not every state has a return-to-work program, but some encourage it by offering sample programs and policies on their websites.
While employers usually have to spend some time and money setting up a return-to-work program, they are often rewarded with lower workers’ compensation costs, better company morale, and higher productivity. These plus the benefit to injured workers makes return-to-work programs with their efforts.