TASB Risk Management Fund
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How to Cash in on a Return-to-Work Program

February 02, 2022 David Wylie

Doctor wrapping patient's wrist

Schools are fundamentally different than businesses. Your local grocery stores, restaurants, and mechanics exist to make a profit. Conversely, schools focus on delivering equal educational opportunities to all kids. But at least one principle applies across the public and private sectors:

Everyone benefits when experienced employees are on the job contributing to productivity, not sitting home recovering from workplace injuries.

That’s why the Fund recommends members invest in a return-to-work (RTW) program. Your program will document the steps your team takes to get injured employees well and back on the job safely and quickly in a temporary, modified-duty assignment.

Why invest in a return-to-work program?

Workplace injuries come with price tags. A strong return-to-work program helps minimize the costs for employers and injured employees.

Employer benefits

  • Establish a uniform response to work-related injuries.
  • Control workers’ compensation claim costs and their impact on your coverage contributions.
  • Improve productivity by keeping experienced employees on the job.
  • Avoid unbudgeted costs of hiring substitutes or paying overtime.

Injured employee benefits

  • Maintain their pre-injury income. Remember, workers’ compensation benefits replace only a portion of lost wages.
  • Recover faster; studies show work is therapeutic.
  • Retain their job skills.
  • Improve their chances of returning to full duty. The likelihood of an injured employee returning to work drops to 50 percent by the 12th week of leave, according to the Job Accommodation Network.
  • Stear clear of the stress, anxiety, and depression that often come with being isolated from peers.

5 things the best return-to-work programs have in common

You’ll customize your return-to-work (RTW) program to meet your organization’s unique needs, but make sure it includes these core elements.

1. Documentation

The RTW process thrives on cooperation among employers, injured employees, health care providers, and the Fund. To ensure everyone understands the process and their responsibilities, start by documenting your RTW program:

  • Craft a statement that expresses leadership’s RTW commitment. The statement should stress the importance of working safely and make it clear the organization will create opportunities for injured employees to return to productive work as soon as medically possible.
  • Document the steps your organization will take from the time an injury happens to the time the employee returns to work. Injured employees should not be surprised during the process.
  • Define the RTW program responsibilities of injured employees, supervisors, health care providers, and claims adjusters.   

2. Detailed job descriptions

Your return-to-work program’s goal is to bring injured employees back to the team as soon medically appropriate and within the physical restrictions required by their physicians. Ultimately, their return to work becomes part of the recovery process.

The more the doctor knows about the employee’s normal job duties, the better positioned they are to evaluate the employee’s ability to return to work.

Write job descriptions for every position in your organization, and keep them accurate and up-to-date. Include details such as the physical demands, tools and machinery, and environmental conditions associated with the job.

If you complete detailed job descriptions before injuries happen, you can streamline the post-injury process when it’s time to complete Texas Department of Insurance, Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) Form DWC-74.

3. Modified-duty assignments

Some injured employees might not be able to immediately perform their normal job duties. They can still contribute to the organization’s goals.

Let’s say a custodial employee slips while mopping a floor and fractures his ankle. The doctor requires him to stay off his feet for six weeks. A modified-duty assignment could include taking inventory, shredding documents, and answering phones.

Of course, our hypothetical custodian’s workday looks different than a teacher’s, administrator’s, or food service employee’s workday. Identifying modified duty for a workforce performing diverse tasks might seem daunting. If you’re not sure where to start, prioritize seasonal positions and positions that are prone to injury or high turnover.

As you work with your team to zero in on tasks that injured employees could do, remember that modified duty should:

  • Comply with the injured employee’s restrictions, as designated by their health care provider
  • Contribute to productivity (No “busy work”)
  • Be similar to the employee’s regular duties and not physically demanding, to the extent possible

Pro tip: Remember that modified-duty assignments are temporary.

To sidestep potential Americans with Disabilities Act conflicts, claim experts recommend you avoid creating a permanent position and holding it to accommodate injured employees.

You can offer modified duty:

  • While the injured employee is getting medical treatment or undergoing rehabilitation for the injury 
  • Until a predetermined expiration of the modified-duty position 
  • Until the employee has reached maximum medical improvement

4. Communication

Ongoing communication among stakeholders keeps everyone on the same page and working toward the same goal during the RTW process:

Injured employees

Supervisors should make it clear to injured employees that they expect an update after each doctor visit. Check-ins are a good time to ask whether employees need extra help with their recoveries. Regular communication also keeps injured employees connected to the workplace, which could promote recovery.

Health care providers

Tell your injured employee’s health care provider that you have an RTW program and you want to collaborate to get the employee back on the job. Share the employee’s normal job duties with the provider by completing DWC Form-74. Similarly, make sure you always have a current DWC Form-73, which lists the employee’s work restrictions as specified by the provider.

Claims adjusters

Your claims adjusters also need to know about your RTW program. If the injured employee does not authorize the doctor to release their medical information to you, your adjuster can act as liaison. When you’re ready to offer a modified-duty assignment, your adjuster can help make sure you comply with state requirements.

5. Bona fide offers

When you identify a modified-duty assignment that matches the employee’s medical restrictions, you’re ready to make a written, bona fide offer of employment. The DWC considers bona fide offers of employment valid if they meet the requirements of DWC Rule 129.6.

That’s why it is important for Fund members to use our pre-written bona fide offer letter (EnglishSpanish) and carefully complete each field.

Under the Texas Workers' Compensation Act, an injured employee’s temporary income benefits can be reduced or discontinued if they turn down a bona fide offer of employment.

3 tips for better bona fide offers:

  1. If the employee's primary language is not English or Spanish, ask your Fund adjuster about getting our letter translated.
  2. Bona fide offer letters are only necessary for workers’ compensation-related absences.
  3. Deliver the offer in person. If that isn’t possible, send it by email or certified mail, which requires the recipient to sign for the letter.

What’s next?

When an employee returns to work on modified or regular duty, the employer has three days to submit DWC Form-6, Employer's Supplemental Report of Injury to the Fund and give a copy to the employee. Each time there is a change in the employee’s post-injury earnings, you must submit a new DWC Form-6.

Get more guidance

If you’re ready to cash in on the benefits of RTW, download our step-by-step guide (for Fund members with Workers’ Compensation pool coverage). Members can also reach out to their adjuster for guidance on bringing injured employees back to work.

Tagged: "Americans with Disabilities Act", "return to work", "Texas Department of Insurance", "workplace safety"