Return to Work: The Work Comp Playbook For Employers

Despite an employer’s best efforts, accidents happen and unfortunately employees get injured, but most employers do not understand the importance of having a return to work process in place before the accident happens.  The lack of planning and preparation will oftentimes lengthen the time the employee is out of work because of delays inherent to the workers’ compensation system.  And studies prove that the longer an employee is out of work the less likely they are to ever return back to work. An employee who’s been away from work for six months has a 50 percent chance of returning to work for that employer, and the percentage goes down to 25 percent at the one-year mark. Once an employee has been away for two or more years, there is a less than 2 percent chance that he or she will come back.

A good RTW process is a combination of a number of things: maintaining good communication with the injured employee, adjusting job responsibilities to fit his or her new needs, and ensuring that everyone on board understands that the injured employee is returning and may have new roles. Read on to learn how you can design an effective RTW program for your company that will smoothly re-integrate employees into your workspace and remain within legal requirements.

Designing Your RTW Process

Before creating your RTW process, we recommend that review your written job descriptions to make sure they contain a physical demands analysis (PDA). The treating physician needs to have a PDA to determine if and when the employee can return back to their regular job. We recommend getting very specific and breaking the description down by task. Why? Because the physician maybe able to return the employee back to their regular job with a small restriction. If you don’t get granular it becomes an all or nothing determination which will likely necessitate you developing an alternate transitional position.  The sooner you can get the employee back to their regular job, the better for everybody.  

The next step is thoroughly educating your supervisors. We recommend a two-pronged approach. The first step is giving them basic training (work comp 101) that gives them a good understanding of the fundamentals of RTW programs. They need to have a good understanding of the workers comp system and your specific program including an overview of your RTW process.  The time to get technical on your RTW process is when an employee is injured and will be returning to a transitional position.  Having your supervisors educated about your RTW process will significantly improve your RTW outcomes.  

Once the supervisors understand the RTW process and their roles, it’s time to educate your employees. Part of your annual employee training should include training on the RTW program. This should cover what their rights and responsibilities are in the workers’ compensation process as well as how to best accommodate other employees who are returning to work after an injury.

We recommend utilizing a Transitional Duty Form, which will help to keep all of your employees on the same page. You should also designate a RTW coordinator in your company who will be in charge of designating who will adjust job descriptions and ensuring that the returning employee is only performing the work that has been approved. It is critical to have someone designated as the RTW coordinator that is not the direct supervisor of the employee, as it will ensure that the employee only performs tasks approved by the physician.

Injured Employees’ Legal Rights

According to a WCRI study, employees who don’t understand their legal rights and responsibilities before the claims process are more likely to retain attorneys after the claim. While the rights and responsibilities vary depending on which state you’re in, most states do require that you offer these benefits to injured employees, courtesy of FindLaw:

  • Disability – Depending on the gravity of the injury, the employee may be entitled to either temporary disability payments or permanent disability. Temporary disability pay rates  are typically equal to two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly gross pay, and is paid every two weeks. If the employee cannot recover from his or her injuries and return to work at all, a permanent disability monetary reward may be required, dependent on the gravity of the injury as well as the employee’s age, occupation, and previous earnings.
  • Medical Care – Under most workers’ compensation plans, the injured employee has the right to all medical treatment, within reason, to cure or alleviate the effects of the injury.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation – If it is found that the injury is preventing the employee from returning to his or her job completely, you may be required to provide assistance for them to obtain another job.
  • Wage Loss Benefits – Depending on whether or not the injured employee can return to work and earn wages or not, you may have to provide temporary partial or temporary total benefits based on the employee’s pre- and post-injury earnings.

Make Sure to Avoid These Common Pitfalls

Re-integrating an employee into your workplace can be difficult, particularly if his or her performative abilities have changed and he or she now has new duties. The biggest mistake that most employers make in their RTW programs is failing to communicate, whether it is to the injured employee or to their other employees. Property Casualty 360 warns employers about comorbidities – health issues that can negatively impact an injured employee’s recovery. Comorbidities can increase the cost of workers’ compensation claims and the amount of time it takes for an employee to return to health, and not communicating these or taking them into account can be bad for your company.

Another mistake is not taking the employee and his or her specific situation into account. While you should have a solidified RTW program in place, you shouldn’t try to run the same routine in each situation and expect it to be effective. Some employees may be able to quickly return to their jobs after a short break and some transitional work, but others may require a switch to light-duty jobs and reasonable accommodations made. Don’t just go by the doctor’s recommendations either: the doctor may know your employee’s health, but the doctor doesn’t know your workplace and the specificities of the job and may not have the best insight on the matter.

Budgeting is also important. There fortunately are an abundance of resources available to help you with your RTW program, and according to the Job Accommodation Network more than half of the accommodations for injured employees cost the employers nothing at all (with 74% of employers saying that accommodations are either “very effective” or “extremely effective”). Make sure to take advantage of all of the resources available in creating your RTW program, and don’t scrimp on the details. It may be tempting to get the employee back to work quickly to avoid a lengthy claims process, but without a carefully planned transition, the employee will likely not be able to resume regular duties.

About Compass RMS

The risk management firm Risk Management, Inc. has specialized in workers’ compensation since 1996, creating the CWCP (Certified Workers’ Compensation Professional) program in 1999 and the P4 process in 2000. We launched our Compass Risk Management platform in 2008 and recently released version 4.0. For more information about our services, give us a call at (770) 534-2042 to speak with one of our consultants.