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SANTA MONICA, Calif.-While it's harder to implement a return-to-work program at a unionized company, The New York Times has done it.

The best way to persuade unions to accept return-to-work programs is to work as a team, showing how such programs are beneficial for workers and the employer, recommends William C. Bruce, an attorney with Mayo, Gilligan & Zito in Wethersfield, Conn.

Using this approach, The New York Times has successfully implemented return-to-work programs for workers represented by 11 of its 13 unions, according to Catherine M. Hopkins, director of environmental health for the newspaper in New York City.

It is more difficult to implement return-to-work programs at unionized companies because such programs often affect the "terms and conditions of employment" specified in collective bargaining agreements, Mr. Bruce explained.

In some cases, unions view "light-duty" jobs-an inherent part of return-to-work programs-as the creation of a new position that must be defined in the union contract, he added.

"Many union agreements-particularly those in crafts or trades-have very strict requirements with respect to what a particular job classification and duties of the employee are in that job classification, and who can move from one job classification to another," he said.

Some unions also may oppose light-duty assignments-many of which are reserved for high-seniority positions-for employees with low seniority, Mr. Bruce noted.

Against this backdrop, however, The New York Times set out to establish a return-to-work program after experiencing a 400% increase in direct workers compensation costs between 1991 and 1994, according to Ms. Hopkins.

Furthermore, the duration of lost-time accidents was six times the national average for workers in similar positions at other employers, she added.

But the newspaper faced numerous obstacles in implementing a return-to-work program, Ms. Hopkins pointed out.

Among them:

A generous supplemental disability policy that provides up to 15 days per year of paid leave, which can be carried over year to year and added to statutory disability leave provided under workers compensation.

"If they get injured and are close to retirement and they haven't taken too much disability time, they could decide they're going to take a couple of years off," she theorized.

"We have another kicker that if you're injured at work and you've used all those days on a workers compensation injury, you can borrow against future earnings up to the maximum of the earnings you've already had. So if you've been there 30 years and you've got up to 450 days, you can borrow up to another 450 days," Ms. Hopkins added.

"So it was kind of unlikely that

they were going to give up those benefits," Ms. Hopkins said.

The line foremen are union members, more sympathetic to the rank and file than to management.

Production management was reluctant to accept workers who were not at 100% capacity, concerned the additional staffing would put them over budget.

So how did The New York Times do it?

First, the vp of the production department, which generated the majority of the work comp costs, was made the program sponsor.

Ms. Hopkins then presented a package of information on return-to-work programs to the Labor Relations department, which served as a liaison between the newspaper and the unions representing its 4,200 full-time workers.

"It took a while, but they finally started to come around and see that it did make sense," she recalled.

Then a series of brainstorming sessions were held involving Labor Relations, production management and the corporate legal department.

The return-to-work program presented to unions included these provisions:

13-week maximum duration.

Modified jobs are restricted to an employee's department to prevent crossing union jurisdictions.

For example, a driver couldn't be assigned to a clerical position, Ms. Hopkins explained.

Mandatory follow-up in the in-house medical department after the first week of modified duty and at least every two weeks thereafter.

No overtime.

While this restriction may seem obvious to most employers, it isn't to people at the Times, who consider overtime to be a benefit, Ms. Hopkins explained.

Mandatory participation by eligible employees.

The Times implemented the program union by union, selecting unions with the least amount of problems with management first, according to Ms. Hopkins.

The program was rolled out in May 1995, and so far 11 of the 13 unions representing the Times' employees participate.

The Labor Relations department sent a letter to each union president roughly 30 days prior to implementation explaining management's intent and inviting them to bring any problems or questions in the interim.

Times' management also met with foremen to describe the process and introduce the forms that would be used and the protocols of communication, as well as to answer any questions or concerns.

The Times also began implementation with employees most likely to cooperate.

"We selected candidates who were anxious to return to work," Ms. Hopkins said. "They were highly motivated employees; they were not, as we call them, our 'frequent fliers'-those who have 10 accidents in as many years."

When the word got out that employees participating in the program were recovering more quickly while preserving their benefits, the program was easier to sell to subsequent unions, she said.

Since the return-to-work program was implemented in May 1995, workers compensation costs have fallen 48%, and the duration of lost-time accidents has fallen to 17 days in 1996 from 37 in 1994, according to Ms. Hopkins.

"We're calling it a qualified success," she said, adding that there are still some problems to work out, such as adding the remaining two unions and objections to the no-overtime clause.

"We still have a long ways to go.'