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Disability Management A Good Business Decision

April 1, 2000
Related Topics: Disabilities, Featured Article
What happens when employees are injured or become ill? Beyond the medical personnel who treat them, who sees to the employees' other needs? Increasingly, in today's business world, those concerns fall to a disability management specialist.

Disability management has evolved over the years from managing paperwork to taking a comprehensive view of an employee's needs. Today, disability management specialists -- especially those who are certified by the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission (CDMSC) -- handle duties from overseeing medical treatment and rehabilitation to conducting vocational assistance. Overall, the goal is to return an employee to work as soon as practically and ethically possible.

This "return to work" mindset obviously benefits the companies that are likely to see a reduction in lost-work time. But more importantly, returning to work may help employees to get healthier more quickly. In fact, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons advocates "education of the injured employee as to the value of return to regular work at the earliest possible time as an important part of the healing process."

But when -- and how -- an employee returns to work is an important consideration. For example, an employee with a back injury who must lift machine parts out of a bin on the factory floor may not return immediately to his or her regular job. Often, a job "accommodation" is structured for the employee, which may involve altered job duties or an entirely different job.

Under these "transitional" work programs, an assembly-line worker may end up doing filing. A custodian who did heavy lifting may be assigned to the security detail at the company parking lot. This is not just "busy work," but rather tasks that must be done -- and can be done by an injured or ill employee who is returning to work.

Among companies today, return-to-work programs are common. But transition programs are not as widespread. "A lot of companies will allow employees to come back to their own department on light duty, but the transitional programs catch people who can't even do that," says Janna Calkins, a Certified Disability Management Specialist at Rocketdyne, a division of The Boeing Company.

A tight U.S. labor market, with unemployment below 5%, underscores the need to keep experienced workers on the job. Add to that the reality of an aging work force, and it's likely that companies will see a rise in injuries and illness among "baby boomer" employees, who are prime candidates for job-accommodations and transition work programs.

Often these programs are administered under the direction of a disability management specialist. These professionals work as liaisons between the employer and the employee, and also work closely with doctors, attorneys and insurance companies. Because of this spectrum of responsibilities, the CDMSC believes that the job is best assigned to professionals who have achieved certification through experience, educational requirements and a stringent exam.

With the emphasis on return-to-work, the increase in disability management specialists on the job will result, ultimately, in cost-savings for employers.

A large West Coast industrial company, for example, saw a dramatic drop in its lost-time case rate after it employed the services of disability management specialists. Lost time cases declined from 1.23 per 100 employees in 1994 to a low of 0.35 in 1998. In the first 10 months of 1999, there had been a slight up-tick in lost-time cases to 0.45 due to some surgeries, but the rate is still far below what it had been just six years prior.

Calkins, a 25-year disability management veteran who is the chair-elect of the CDMSC, believes that companies also reap another benefit from return-to-work programs -- higher employee morale. Employees often feel better and more secure about their own jobs when the company makes accommodations for someone else.

It is this "attitudinal" component that is, perhaps, the most crucial in return-to-work and transitional work programs. When a company and an employee agree to work together, the potential for success increases.

"I can't stress enough the attitude on behalf of the employer and the employee," says Janet Toney, a Certified Disability Management Specialist who manages the Albuquerque, N.M., disability department for Atlanta-based Crawford Health Care Management. As part of her job, Toney regularly works with employees of industrial and mining companies.

"It's important to understand the points of view of each party," adds Calkins, who regularly works with employees, the company and union representatives on job accommodations. Open and ongoing dialogue is essential to the success of job accommodation programs. It also helps assure all parties involved that every effort was made to accommodate a worker when things don't work out as planned.

Calkins tells the story of a 25-year Rocketdyne employee who injured his ankle on the job. While he was in the transition program, several attempts were made to find an assignment for him in another department. In the end, the employee opted for medical leave and then retirement. Still, Calkins says, "it was a good resolution. Throughout the process, we were all on the same page and felt good about our efforts. In the end, there was closure."

While an ill or injured employee may be assigned light duty or a transitional assignment when first returning to work, the emphasis is always on an increase in productivity and an eventual return to the employee's regular job.

By the same token, when a disabled person is hired, a company must not compromise its productivity standards. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) calls for disabled workers to be given equal job opportunities, with the understanding that productivity should not suffer.

"People who have disabilities must do their jobs. They pull their weight and earn their paychecks," says Rheta Baron King, a Certified Disability Management Specialist and an ADA consultant in Pasadena, Calif. "The concern sometimes among people who don't have experience with ADA -- if they're peers or supervisors -- is that the company has to subsidize somebody just to meet a law. But the law says that the employer is not required to lower the quality or the quantity of work. That's not where you bend. Where you bend is on the method of how you achieve those results -- but the results should be the same."

Working as an ADA consultant, King has helped employers to implement many of the same kinds of accommodations that are used for workers who become ill or injured on the job. This includes a computerized "reader" for a man who is legally blind, and simple, structural changes to his office cubicle to block glare that was further impeding his limited vision.

Often, job accommodations involve low-tech, low-cost solutions, disability management specialists say. And sometimes the solutions are as simple as heavy-duty gloves to protect a worker's injured hands or a more ergonomically correct chair.

The payoff for these efforts is measurable in higher productivity, reduced lost work time, a decline in litigation, and an increase in dedicated and motivated employees who are an asset to the company.

The information and forms contained in this feature are intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.

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