A return-to-work program is one way to approach the legal requirement — laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act — that employers accommodate workers with disabilities. Through the voluntary offering, which kicks in after an employee experiences an illness or injury, employers comply with an employees’ medical work restrictions and provide a temporary work assignment that is physically or mentally less demanding, referred to as transitional, light or modified duty.
Return-to-work programs have a number of benefits, Bryon Bass, senior vice president and workforce absence and disability practice leader from claims administrator Sedgwick, told participants in a Thursday webinar hosted by the Disability Management Employer Coalition. For one thing, they improve employee engagement, keeping employees working in a way they can manage rather than sitting them on the sidelines. They also increase productivity both for the employer and worker, hasten healing and reduce the costs of disability leave programs, claims and turnover, Bass said.
While both employers and employees can benefit from a return-to-work program, there are good and bad ways to manage it, Bass noted. He and his colleague Adam Morell laid out six do’s and don’ts for a successful RTW program.
1. Do have clear parameters and expectations in place.
A return-to-work program should have clear boundaries and expectations. “You do need to have a written policy that formalizes what your return-to-work policy … is and is not,” Bass said. “Generally speaking, most return-to-work and stay-at-work programs have assignments that are temporary in nature and should not exceed 90 days.”
Why 90 days? More than that, Bass said, and the job and job function itself begins to change due to the long-term nature of the adjustment. If it’s beginning to look like an employee will need a potential accommodation beyond the 90 days, it helps to start the interactive process sooner rather than later to understand the necessity of and prepare for options like a leave of absence or job reassignment, Bass said.
2. Do keep employees’ rate of pay the same.
Employees using a return-to-work program should not have their pay docked due to their disability — even if they cannot perform at the same level. “Employees in a transitional duty program are paid the same rate as the pay of their regular job,” Bass said.
3. Don’t assign overtime.
Because return-to-work programs are intended to help employees remain productive while also having a chance to heal, employers should refrain from assigning or allowing overtime for such employees. “That’s to allow them to recover more effectively and efficiently,” Bass said.
4. Do get leadership on board.
As with so many other aspects of organizational culture, commitment comes from the top-down. “You need to ensure that your return-to-work program is something that is embraced from leadership and leadership understands their roles and responsibilities in the process,” Bass said. “And that they are encouraging individuals when they learn that maybe they have a temporary need, or even a long-term need” to use the return-to-work program.
Bass used the example of an employee who, after getting in a ski accident, is directed by their doctor not to stand. “That should be a ding-ding for the supervisor to reach out and have a return-to-work coordinator … work to engage with the employee to find that opportunity and to bring them back into the work environment sooner rather than later,” he said. “Your supervisors aren’t going to understand when there’s an opportunity if they don't know what to listen for and what to look for.”
5. Do track the time an employee uses a return-to-work program.
Time-tracking is important for some of the above stated reasons — that the program should not exceed 90 days, and supervisors and employees should be aware of next steps if the need for accommodation exceeds 90 days — but also for another reason: “Your leadership team is going to want to understand what the return on investment is in having a return-to-work program and investing in company policies that encourage return to work,” Bass said.
A return-to-work coordinator should send notifications to employees on their return-to-work status at certain intervals, Bass said, reminding them of where they are in the process and how much time they have remaining. This is also an opportunity to track whether an employee’s health status is improving or if another adjustment might be needed down the line.
6. Don’t replace a return-to-work program with a 100%-healed policy.
Employers may find return-to-work programs arduous at first. But the temptation to pivot to a “100%-healed” policy — one in which workers are benched until they are 100% healed or able to perform a job’s functions without any accommodations — is one employers should avoid, Adam Morell, DMEC co-presenter and assistant vice president of product compliance at Sedgwick, said during the webinar.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers such policies impermissible because they prevent individualized assessments, remove the employee’s ADA-required ability to pursue a reasonable accommodation and bypass the potential for intermittent leave.
“Paying people money to sit at home who are well enough to do something productive at work? That’s not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA,” Morell said. “If the EEOC feels that way about paying people to sit at home, imagine how they would feel about a situation when the employee is not being paid — and they could still be productive at work. So 100%-healed policies? Not good.”