There are basic concepts about workers’ compensation that everyone within an organization should know so that everyone works together toward getting the injured employee and the company back to 100% or, at least, to pre-injury status. One such concept relates to getting the employee back to work as soon as possible. This is known as a “Return-to-Work” (R-t-W) policy.
First, this policy should be a written part of the company policy manual for both legal and consistent application reasons. Without such a policy in writing, the employer can be targeted for subjective discrimination or retaliatory practices as well as managers and supervisors potentially communicating the wrong or inaccurate information to an injured employee. Either way, without a written policy, it could cost the employer hundreds of thousands of dollars in one lawsuit or over time with unintended consequences with the loss of an employee.
Second, all employees at every level, as well as treating physicians, should know of your policy so there is no question about an employee’s ability or the company’s intent to having an employee come back to work, even if on transitional (modified, light, restricted) duty. This return to work is beneficial to the employee as well as to the employer in reducing wage loss, costs, and increased days away from work for OSHA recordkeeping, if the policy is not known.
Employee and employer benefits
Let me clarify this point: this policy is not to get the employee back to work at the expense or compromise of the employee’s health and recovery. It is to help the employee return to a more normal schedule and routine after an injury while helping the healing and recovery process by following prescribed activities at work and home.
To ensure a physician can provide prescribed restrictions, the employer must have a position description that is detailed and specific to the duties that must be performed normally. The physician must also know that a workers’ compensation injury is exempt from HIPAA so a physician sharing medical records and treatment is not a violation of the patient’s confidentiality rights. Not sharing those records with the employer is actually a violation of law under most workers’ compensation statutes.
There is no legal requirement for an employer to have an R-t-W policy. If you want your employee to sit at home and watch the injury lawyer commercials in between the soap operas and have you pay the full brunt of the recovery costs without seeing any benefit, well, that is up to you.
Statistically, however, two very important messages are sent when this happens. One: your employee will not return to work any time soon because he now doesn’t think he has any value to the team that is filling his shoes while he is out; and two: you are creating a negative incentive for the rest of your employees to go and do likewise. After all, staying at home, getting paid, and doing whatever I want while there could lead me to think I might not ever want to get better.
Bringing an injured employee back to work sends a positive and uplifting message to the injured person and to the rest of the team. It tells the employee he is valuable to the team, that his efforts are appreciated, and that the employer wants him back. Also, it allows the employee to get his mind off the claim and back to a more normal routine.
Studies have shown that getting back to work also reduces the “out-of-pocket” costs associated with most waiting periods in workers’ compensation programs. In Virginia, for example, an employee must be out for seven days before compensation of wages begin at day eight and then it is not retroactive! An employee returning to work on restricted duty before the seven days are up allows him to see a paycheck and not fall under increased financial pressures during the recovery time for the injury.
One word on medical records: you must maintain confidentiality when obtaining medical records on an injured employee. But do not let the medical provider “buffalo” you on medical records falling under patient privacy laws. In a workers’ compensation claim, you are paying the bill and you are the authorized “owner” of those records. You are legally entitled to those records and to ensure your employee and you follow prescribed treatment, you need those records. A simple phone call explaining that you are the authorized workers’ compensation claims handler at your company should get you the records. If you have established a relationship with the medical providers early on, this won’t be a problem.
So, although such a policy is not required, there are numerous benefits to the employee and employer for having a formal Return-to-Work policy in place.