By Allen Smith, JD, September 29, 2021
Assigning an employee with a disability to a light-duty program can be a reasonable accommodation or a way to avoid long-term workers' compensation benefits. Here are some tips on the fundamental components to an effective light-duty return-to-work program.
Follow these seven guidelines, recommended Christine Gerbasi, vice president of client services for Keenan in Redondo Beach, Calif.:
- Make sure the program has a champion—someone within the organization who is responsible for the it.
- Establish a policy to ensure consistency and communicate the light-duty policy to employees prior to and at the time of an injury.
- Based on the types of claims that are common for the organization, consider in advance the types of light-duty jobs that can be made available. Don't wait for an injury to occur to make this determination.
- If there is a designated front-line provider that employees are sent to when injured, tell the provider that every effort will be made to accommodate work restrictions.
- Make your return-to-work program and philosophy known to the workers' compensation claims administrator or insurance company, which can help be an advocate and partner.
- Overcommunicate with the injured employee from the time of injury, following each medical appointment and throughout the claim. "Communication is the key to preventing confusion, misunderstandings, uncertainty and costly litigation," Gerbasi said.
- Understand the company's responsibility to engage with employees in the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be made and document the steps taken.
Examples of Light-Duty Work
A light-duty accommodation allows an employee to work in a job that's physically or mentally less demanding as the person recovers from an injury or is dealing with a medical condition, noted Fanny Ferdman, an attorney with BakerHostetler in New York City.
Typically, light duty involves excusing an employee from performing certain tasks that the individual would normally perform, she said.
For example, suppose a mailroom employee has had shoulder surgery and cannot lift heavy boxes. Light-duty work may excuse the employee from moving heavy boxes and permit the worker to lift boxes under a certain weight limit. The employee also may be assigned other mailroom tasks, such as filing, handling mail, shredding and ordering supplies.
Or suppose there is a nurse who has a medical condition with her foot and cannot stand for an extended period. Light-duty work may permit her to perform more seated work or desk work temporarily, Ferdman said.
"Light-duty return-to-work programs are particularly important because reassigning an employee with a disability to a light-duty job might be required as a reasonable accommodation, depending on how an employer's light-duty program is designed," Ferdman said.
She explained that if an employer reserves certain jobs for light duty, rather than creating light-duty jobs as needed, the employer must reassign the employee to a vacant, reserved light-duty position if:
- The employee cannot perform his or her current position because of the disability, with or without a reasonable accommodation.
- The worker can perform the light-duty job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.
- The reassignment would not impose an undue hardship.
"This is because reassignment to a vacant position and appropriate modification of an employer's policy are forms of reasonable accommodation required by the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], absent undue hardship," she said.
Benefits of Light-Duty Work
"Light-duty return-to-work programs benefit employees, employers and the communities that an employer serves," Gerbasi said.
For an employee, remaining gainfully employed can help protect the worker's earnings. "Generally, when an employee is off work, they receive only two-thirds of their wages subject to minimum and maximum benefit rates," she said. "Staying actively employed—working within their work restrictions—can prevent atrophy and aid in the recovery process." Continuing to work and contribute to the organization plus staying engaged with co-workers also can have a positive impact on the employee mentally.
"For the employer, return-to-work programs provide an opportunity to control workers' compensation claims costs and ultimately insurance contributions and premiums," Gerbasi said. "There are many studies that show an effective return-to-work program reduces the costs associated with temporary disability, litigation and the duration of medical treatment." In addition, employers can reduce the costs of temporary workers needed while an injured employee is off. Production and service disruptions can be minimized by retaining staff.
"For the communities served by the employer, services and resources are less likely to be negatively impacted," she said. "Having trained employees on the job is critical to the continuation of service."
However, "some fields are simply not suitable for offering light-duty work or there are limited opportunities to do so," said Amanda Conley, an attorney with Swift Currie in Atlanta. "With larger employers, there is often more opportunity to identify light-duty jobs due to the greater variety of tasks being performed."
An effective light-duty program depends on a robust disability accommodation policy or light-duty policy, Ferdman said.
"Depending on the business, an employer may want to include the kind of situations and light-duty work options that might be appropriate in that business," she said.
The policy also should clearly create a procedure for requesting such accommodations. "An employer's process can be as simple as requiring an employee to send HR an e-mail and to provide a doctor's letter describing any work restrictions, or it can be more formal, such as requiring employees to complete and submit a light-duty request form," Ferdman said.
If suitable light-duty work is identified, the light-duty assignment should be precisely defined for the employee in a letter that identifies a start date and the possibility that the employee could lose workers' compensation benefits if he or she refuses the assignment, said Angelo Filippi, an attorney with Kelley Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"The policy should also provide that the employer will follow up with the employee and his or her medical provider to determine if and when circumstances change," he said.