Workers' compensation insurance premiums represent a major personnel expense for most organizations. Injuries that cause employees to miss work are especially costly, in terms of both lost wage compensation and lost productivity. Also, the longer a worker is disabled and unable to work, the more his future earning power decreases and the more likely it becomes that he will hire an attorney. For these reasons, it is advantageous to both employer and employee to get the injured worker back on the job as soon as possible. As a result, many employers have implemented return to work programs.
Under a return to work program, the injured employee performs a different job while receiving his prior level of pay. The new job should be matched to his current physical capability, reflecting his state of recovery from the injury. To succeed, this requires a good working relationship between the employer and treating physician. The employer needs accurate information as to the tasks the worker can safely perform; otherwise, the result may be a second, more severe injury. If the worker's physician will not cooperate or provide a realistic estimate, the employer or insurance company may have to require a physical examination by an independent physician.
A return to work program should be one piece of a comprehensive and coordinated loss management program. The elements of the program should include:
- Immediate reporting and investigation of accidents
- Arrangement of primary medical care
- Return to work program
- Regular communications with the injured worker
To assist in the arrangement of primary care, the employer should provide the treating physician with job descriptions that explain each job's physical tasks in detail. Meetings with the physician to explain the nature of the employer's operation will help match a job to the worker's capabilities. Communications between the physician and the employer are vitally important. The employer may want to arrange for direct reports from the physician or regular reports delivered by the employee. The ideal situation is one where the employee can assume light duties without missing any time. Barring that, limiting lost time to a week or two will still keep the claim's cost down, resulting in premium savings for the employer. The experience modification formula, which adjusts the premium based on loss history, gives the most weight to losses of $5,000 or less. Getting the injured worker back on the job quickly will help keep the loss well under that limit. Since losses remain in the calculation for three years, the effect of holding down claim costs is long lasting.
Of course, return to work programs have pros and cons. The pros include:
- Limiting or eliminating lost work time
- Keeping the worker involved in the work environment
- Eliminating the need to locate, hire and train a replacement
- Increasing the chances of success should the worker refuse the new duties and sue for lost wage benefits, since the employer can show that it made a reasonable job offer
Among the cons are:
- The employer will pay the employee's full wage for reduced productivity
- An employee with a bad attitude about his alternative duties could lower morale among the other employees
- If the alternative arrangement does not work out, returning the employee to lost wage benefits will wipe out any cost savings
While individual cases might not produce the desired results, employers should realize long-term savings by implementing return to work programs. Beyond the verifiable dollar savings, return to work programs can give the employer a more stable, happier workforce and a good reputation with potential employees.
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