Injuries and Illness

Returning Injured Workers to the Job: How to Do It Quickly, Safety, and Legally

When an injured worker takes time off, everyone suffers in some way. Here are ideas to bring them back faster, without violating the law.

When a worker is injured, he or she will likely have to take time off, and should be given as much time as is needed. But the flip side is that staying out longer than that is not something employers want to encourage, unless absolutely medically necessary.

In fact, it’s in an employer’s interest to do everything possible to get workers back on task as soon as possible. Employment law attorneys Francis Alvarez and Michael Lotito of the national law firm of Jackson-Lewis recently suggested a variety of ways to do that to a recent meeting of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Everyone loses when employees are out of work,” said Alvarez.

Learn what you need to know to bring an injured worker back to the job legally at BLR’s special January 24 audio conference on the subject. Can’t attend? Pre-order the CD. Read more.

To reverse some of those losses, the attorneys laid out the fundamentals of a strong return-to-work (RTW) program:

1. Before they take leave, be sure workers know you’re committed to RTW. The program should be written in policy form, and communicated, starting from the orientation materials and handbook you provide to newcomers, on out. The policy should point out that your aim is to get injured or ill workers back on the job as soon as possible, and that you’ll be calling to invite them back as soon as it’s practical to do so. Also, point out that they’re obligated to provide information and certification to justify their absence, as long as they’re out, and to cooperate with any reasonable effort to get them back. Also, communicate that any award of disability or other payment during leave will be contingent on that cooperation.

2. Create an RTW organization. It should be headed up by an RTW coordinator, who immediately follows up on all on-the-job accident-caused leave immediately and on any non-job-related leave that lasts longer than a week. Employees should know this is the person to talk to about their continued need for leave or arrangements for returning to work. The coordinator should coordinate with a return-to-work committee, tasked with developing individualized written plans to get employees back working as quickly as possible. The committee should also establish procedures and forms for communicating with both employees and their doctors.

3. Let doctors know what the worker does. Alvarez and Lotito suggest sending doctors job descriptions for workers under their care, and actively asking which parts of those jobs can be done and which cannot. “Ask about the risk of harm to the worker,” the attorneys advise, “and devise steps to reduce it.”

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4. Create a temporary light-duty/transitional program. Often, workers incapable of doing their full former jobs can still do a variety of the tasks requiring lesser effort. If so, such a program should be created to get these employees back, at least part-time. However, make absolutely clear that the light-duty work is temporary, the attorneys advise, “so that the employees don’t view the modified job as a permanent entitlement.” Put into writing that you retain discretion to change or end a light-duty assignment.

5. Create a wellness program to minimize RTW needs! If you can head off illness before it strikes, RTW programs won’t be needed as much. The same goes for having an effective safety program, of course. If workers aren’t injured, that cause of medical leave also goes away.

The important thing, the attorneys say, is to retain control over the process so that workers cannot simply drift off in an undisciplined manner and stay out longer than their legitimate needs merit. And, if possible, to avoid needing to grant leave in the first place.

“The formula is TC2,” the attorneys say. “Take care of your employees, [but] take control of your risks.”


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