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Employers get creative with light-duty assignments


When medical restrictions prevent injured employees from returning to work in a light-duty capacity, more employers are looking to outside organizations to accommodate them in the interim.

Alternative return-to-work programs that temporarily assign injured workers to nonprofits are becoming more popular — especially among industries such as trucking and construction that have a dearth of light-duty jobs, workers compensation professionals say.

When employers can't accommodate injured workers who have medical restrictions, off-site programs provide “the ability to retain their status and benefits with the company,” Bryan C. Shaughnessy, Philadelphia-based assistant vice president of workers compensation and claim product management at third-party administrator ESIS Inc., said in an email.

Such programs allow workers to “remain productive and engaged in meaningful work, which can result in learning new skills and improved self-esteem,” he said.

That keeps employees covered by their original employer's “umbrella of benefits,” including workers comp, said Suzie Burdette, Birmingham, Alabama-based vice president of managed care and case management at WellComp Managed Care Services, a subsidiary of York Risk Services Group Inc.

“When employers are first told” about alternative return-to-work options, they might question how paying an injured employee to work at a nonprofit will benefit their business, Ms. Burdette said.

But “the sooner you can get someone back to any type of work environment, the better. The longer they stay off (work) doing nothing, the greater the risk of them never returning,” she said.

While research on the subject is limited, a 2010 Rand Corp. study concluded that companies with a return-to-work program get injured employees back on the job about 1.4 times — or three to four weeks — sooner than companies without such a program.

According to Dublin, Ohio-based case management provider VocWorks, modified duty off-site programs reduce lost time days, indemnity costs, lost productivity and medical costs. In 2014, that improved return-to-work outcomes by 37%.

Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill and Salvation Army are among nonprofits that work with employers, Ms. Burdette said. In some cases, injured workers can go to a nonprofit of their choice.

Employers in states such as Alabama, California and Maine can require that injured workers accept an alternative return-to-work offer, Ms. Burdette and other sources said. Refusing it can result in the reduction or loss of their indemnity benefits, though their employer would continue to pay their medical benefits.

Even if an injured worker can't go back to their old job, the employer stops paying indemnity benefits when the worker finds a new job, said Ed Steltzer, Hampden, Maine-based disability management consultant for The MEMIC Group. However, if the person earns less than before they were injured, the insurer makes up the difference, he said.

Though such programs are gaining popularity among employers who can't provide light-duty jobs but still want to retain workers and reduce workers comp costs, they're less common than traditional on-site programs that more than half of employers offer, Ms. Burdette said.

Such alternative programs are offered to injured workers who haven't reached maximum medical improvement or to people like Robert Tribou, who says he can no longer drive a truck for work.

The Augusta, Maine, man said he slipped on ice and suffered a concussion three years ago. Mr. Tribou, whose slowed response times due to the occupational injury while working at an employer he declined to name, said that cost him his commercial driver's license.

“Frustration was probably my strongest emotion,” Mr. Tribou said. “I was just frustrated that I could not do the things that I normally did.”

To counter that, Mr. Tribou said he volunteered at a hospital, visiting patients who didn't have friends or family nearby.

It made him realize, “I could be in a lot worse shape … than I am now,” he said. “I could be horizontal on a hospital bed instead of being able to walk around vertical. That helped to keep things in a positive light — being able to focus on what I do have and not what I've lost.”

Mr. Tribou said he volunteered for about six months before deciding to return to Kennebec Valley Community College. The 49-year-old who has had a longtime interest in sustainable agriculture said he plans to raise grass-fed beef after he graduates with an associate's degree.

Mr. Tribou credits MEMIC, his former employer's workers comp insurer, for helping him find a new purpose. It was Mr. Steltzer who suggested Mr. Tribou volunteer and helped identify a job he could do despite his medical restrictions, Mr. Tribou said.

MEMIC encourages all of its clients to have a return-to-work program and offers “a lot of support to help them identify jobs and job descriptions in other areas where people can perform light duty,” he said.