Creating a Return-To-Work Program

April 20, 2001
The key to designing and implementing a successful return-to-work program iscommunication. From managers to unions to employees, all involved parties mustbe educated about return-to-work programs, both the benefits and the challenges.

    "The first step in devising a return-to-work program is to have supportfrom top management," advises Janna Calkins, a California-based CertifiedDisability Management Specialist and chair of the Certification of DisabilityManagement Specialists Commission (CDMSC).

    Once top-management "buys into" the concept, the structure andbenefits must be communicated throughout the company, particularly to managersand supervisors in various departments and groups. "As information isdisseminated, it tends to be presented in a formal, sophisticated manner,"says Neil Bennett, Section Chair of the Disability Management Section,International Association of Rehabilitation Professions (IARP). "It's hardto get it all translated into the mindset of a person who is going to managethese employees."

    The common questions that managers asks deal with the benefits of theprogram. The answer, Calkins says, is not always easy to quantify."Companies need to look at what it costs to have someone off work in termsof productivity. But there are other costs, such as training for replacementworkers, the cost of hiring a temporary worker, or overtime for those who aredoing the extra duty," she adds. "Plus, there is the risk of a slippedproduction schedule, if temporary replacements aren't hired, and those who aredoing the extra duty may face an increase risk of injury because of the addedphysical demands on them."

    MetLife Disability, which offers disability insurance coverage to employers,says that return-to-work programs can actually reduce the overall disabilitycost to companies. "We underwrite and price based upon the number of peoplewe expect will go out on disability. Identifying creative return-to-worksolutions helps minimize disability costs and improve an employer's workplaceproductivity," explains Elizabeth Corp, program manager for Rehabilitation,Social Security and Appeals for MetLife.

    Even in a short-term job placement, however, workers may be paid far morethan their temporary assignments demand. For example, skilled industrial workerpaid $20 an hour could be assigned to do filing. "There needs to be somedecisions made as to the salaries that are paid to these people, and where themoney is going to come from," Calkins says. One solution, she adds, is fora company to establish separate funding for all return-to-work assignments.

    Or, some companies may opt to pay an employee a reduced salary while on areturn-to-work assignment. However, the amount paid is still more thandisability payments.

    If the workplace is unionized, make sure union representatives are involvedin the set up and implementation of return-to-work programs. Job assignmentsmust be made with union jurisdictions in mind. "If you are putting a welderin a bench machinist's position, even on a temporary basis, that's not going tofly," Calkins says.

    But in a cooperative environment, a union worker could be given a temporaryassignment to train others. Or, tasks that aren't currently being performed -such as filing, documentation and some quality-control work, can be pulledtogether to create a temporary assignment.

    Under return-to-work programs, assignments must be made on a case-by-casebasis, depending upon the jobs available, an employee's skills, and the natureof the illness or injury. But the overriding theme is cooperation and a beliefthat keeping employees on the job is good for all involved.

    "A good return-to-work program," Bennett concludes, "requireseverybody to take the high road to resolve the issues. The lead often has tocome from the employer to bring the employee back to work."