The course of American industry is filled with instances that employers have partnered with the competing interests of organized labor to make the workplace a better place. This included the development of the modern workers’ compensation system, which has become known as the “Grand Bargain.” Now is the time for both sides to re-examine their relationship and understand how they can continue to work together for the betterment of all parties through the effective return to work.
Benefits of Return-to-Work
The benefits of an effective return to work program are numerous, and help employers and employees alike achieve their goals.
- Benefits for Employees: Countless surveys of injured employees demonstrate the need to return to work in a quick manner. While it is jokingly everyone’s dream to stay at home and watch TV during the day, a vast majority of injured employees who do not have a return to work option demonstrate the negative psychological consequences of prolonged recovery times.
- Benefits for Employers: It goes without saying that having an employee off due to a work injury reduces workplace efficiency and is a hidden cost on the bottom line. Effective return to work reduces program costs, and makes the workplace more efficient. Studies demonstrate a fast return to work reduce future exposures (including claims for retraining or permanent total disability), and containing costs.
The bottom line is there is an interest for both sides of the workers’ compensation equation to return employees to work following an injury. Effective return to work should include labor unions in the process, which can drive workplace safety, and morale.
Overcoming Labor Union Barriers
Employer interests often focus on barriers they perceive labor unions create in the return to work process. These barriers (real or imagined) can include:
- Collective bargaining agreement limitations;
- Lack of support from leadership – which is often the case on both sides.
Creative solutions and hard work need to take place when it comes to overcoming these barriers. When a strong effort is made, all sides will benefit:
- Provide all employees with a voice: People often join labor unions because they feel they do not have a “voice” as an individual. When employer interests involve the injured employee in the return to work process, they are empowering that person, and giving them one of the benefits of union membership.
- Act in good faith: There is a huge lack of trust when it comes to return to work. Common concerns expressed by countless employees include being required to perform work activities outside their restrictions, or being forced into a role that does not provide satisfaction. Employers can make simple accommodations such allowing for a “graduated” return to work process where the employee is allowed to become re-conditioned, and adjust to their new schedule. Every effort should be made to provide work that gives the employee a sense of self-worth, and is similar to what they were doing prior to the injury.
- Emphasis on Safety: Safety is key to any successful return to work program. Employers should be willing to listen to union leadership, and the “rank and file” regarding ideas on how to make the workplace safe. Suggestions on how to improve this can include implementing a safety tracking system that documents concerns, and provides details on how that issue has been remedied.
- Consider all state and federal safety and disability laws. One example of this is bridging the gap between workers’ compensation, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is an issue that should be addressed in all collective bargaining agreements. All employees who suffer a work injury should be considered a “qualified individual with a disability,” and receive the laws full legal protection.
Employers and laborers should work together on many issues within the workplace. One of these issues is to return to work following a work injury. Instead of looking for barriers, both sides should be proactive in seeking solutions that benefit the company and the individual employee’s rights. This should include an emphasis on getting all injured employees back to work in a timely manner with an emphasis on safety.
Author Michael Stack, CEO Amaxx LLC. He is an expert in workers’ compensation cost containment systems and helps employers reduce their workers’ comp costs by 20% to 50%. He works as a consultant to large and mid-market clients, is a co-author of Your Ultimate Guide To Mastering Workers Comp Costs, a comprehensive step-by-step manual of cost containment strategies based on hands-on field experience, and is the founder & lead trainer of Amaxx Workers’ Comp Training Center, which offers the Certified Master of Workers’ Compensation national designation.
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ESSENTIAL: This article is Return-to-Work Essentials content.