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What Small Business Owners Should Know About Return-to-Work Programs

When on-the-job illnesses and injuries strike, workers’ compensation insurance can cover medical expenses, physical therapy expenses and lost wages for employees. But what happens when the employee has healed and it’s time to get back to work? What should small business owners and their employees expect?

Every year, nearly 3 million American workers experience illness or injury while on the job, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These workers are away from their jobs eight days on average. That puts a strain on small business owners, who want and need all their job positions filled. Injured employees may also feel pressure to heal as fast as they can to get back to work.

It is in everyone’s best interest to get injured employees back into productive roles as quickly as their medical conditions allow. That’s where return-to-work programs can help.

Understanding return-to-work programs

Generally, workers’ compensation insurance carriers will offer a return-to-work program. These programs aim to increase productivity, reduce lost time, boost employee morale, minimize performance issues, reduce turnover, foster a reduction in claims and trim claims costs by helping injured employees return to the workforce as soon as medically cleared to do so. An effective workers’ compensation return-to-work program should explain business owner expectations and should respect employees’ rights.

A return-to-work program must comply with state and federal laws. Before drafting a return-to-work program, small business owners should consult with an attorney who understands the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act and applicable workers’ compensation statutes in the states where the business operates. Together, they can forge a written policy that explains the company’s commitment to encouraging injured employees to return to work as soon as possible. It should also explain to employees the availability of modified duties and the benefits of returning to work quickly, such as restoring their income and maintaining their skills. The policy needs to include language about the need for a return-to-work doctor’s note that details any physical limitations or restrictions the employee may have. The Loss Control function of the company’s workers’ compensation carrier may offer assistance as both a preventative and post-accident measure.

To that point, small business owners and injured employees must understand that doctors dictate the return-to-work schedule. Injured employees will receive workers’ compensation benefits for as long as the doctor deems necessary and according to state laws, which vary. Workers’ compensation insurers should work with policyholders, or business owners, to guide them through the state laws where they operate. For example, EMPLOYERS® offers state claims kits to streamline the process for clients.

After initial examination and any required follow-ups, doctors will give injured workers a note that allows them to return to full or limited-duty work or deems them unable to return. For example, a doctor might stipulate an employee can return to work but lift only up to 20 pounds. If the job requires the worker to lift more than 20 pounds, however, the owner must decide if they can accommodate the restriction or instead put the employee in another position at the same pay rate.

Accommodating injured workers

Small businesses may feel added pressure to get employees healthy and back on the job. If a business with five employees loses just one to injury, that business has lost 20 percent of its workforce. It’s in the business’ best interest to get an injured employee back to full-duty as soon as possible.

That’s one reason why small business owners may find it beneficial to adopt a return-to-work light duty policy and create a bank of light-duty job descriptions. Light-duty work is transitional and short-term, and designed to keep an employee engaged and adding value during recovery. Employers can develop a bank of light duty jobs or tasks which assist in accommodating disabled or injured workers, such as administrative duties, organizing and stocking office supplies, or helping train other employees.

Business owners should review each job description and ensure the basic duties a worker must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation, are clearly outlined.

Employers can then modify these permanent descriptions to be light-duty, temporary jobs in the event an employee is injured. The goal of the temporary job is to get workers back on their feet and productive while bridging the gap between injury and recovery.

Notably, if an employee cannot return to a full-capacity position, small business owners are not required to offer a lighter position. They are also not obligated to hold the injured employee’s position for them. However, workers have the right to come back to the same pay when they return to normal work duty. If their former position has been filled, each state treats the situation differently. Owners should consult with their attorney and/or state insurance regulator to understand their legal responsibilities.

Following doctor’s orders

Small business owners cannot pressure injured employees to return to work before a doctor deems those employees ready. However, workers are also expected to comply with doctor’s orders. In addition, employees pay no deductible for workers’ compensation and have a right to expect treatment when injured on the job. Of note, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does not apply to workers’ comp. That means the insurer has full access to the injured worker’s medical records and medical history and the employee must comply with doctor’s orders and applicable state laws. Employees must return to work when the doctor clears them to. If they refuse, they face possible termination and ceased workers’ compensation benefits.

In cases where small business owners cannot accommodate a doctor’s orders for light or transitional duty, EMPLOYERS offers its clients a unique “temporary transitional duty” program. When a small business owner has no available job position to accommodate a light-duty or restricted-duty doctor’s order, insurance carriers, such as EMPLOYERS, might coordinate with a local charity to get the nearly healed worker gainful, temporary employment while they receive workers’ compensation benefits. Being active and productive can help improve the injured workers’ morale, give them a sense of normalcy and help get them back to work quicker. When these employees are out in the community and active, their claim durations tend to be shorter.

Communication between a small business owner, its workers’ compensation provider and the injured employee is vital to making the return-to-work process run smoothly. Small business owners may find it helpful to work with their insurance carrier to create a return-to-work offering that encompasses the start date of the work, hours of work, the employee’s supervisor during the work, and the deadline for the employee to accept the work assignment. Once the employee has returned, small business owners should monitor that employees’ progress to encourage them, offer support and see if any accommodations are needed.

For more information on creating and implementing a return-to-work program, contact EMPLOYERS.

The information provided is intended to provide a general overview. This information is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. EMPLOYERS® makes no warranties for the accuracy, adequacy, or completeness of the information provided, and will not be responsible for any actions taken based on the information contained herein. If you have legal questions or need legal advice, please consult an attorney.