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How to Create a Return-to-Work/Light-Duty Program

Employers  and employees alike can benefit from encouraging employees who have been injured on or off the job to get well and return to work as soon as possible. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), an injured worker is less likely to return to work the longer he or she is on leave. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics have estimated the cost of absenteeism to exceed $40 billion a year. Return-to-work (RTW) programs can help facilitate an employee to be able to stay at work while recovering from his or her illness or injury. Employers that adopt a light-duty program for employees with work-related injuries may want to consider offering the same program to employees who may have been ill or whose disabilities are not work-related.

The benefits of a RTW program for employers include:

  • Increased productivity.
  • Reduced costs due to overtime pay as other workers fill in.
  • Reduced administrative costs associated with filling the position with temporary help.
  • Controlled workers' compensation claim costs.
  • Reduced short-term disability (STD) and long-term disability (LTD) costs.
  • Reduction in absenteeism and days away from work.

Employees benefit from an RTW program because:

  • They maintain some or all of their earnings.
  • They maintain their skills and are productive contributors to the organization.
  • They are likely to return to their pre-injury jobs more quickly.
  • They maintain social connections and sense of purpose with their work routine.

To create an effective RTW program, employers can follow the steps outlined below.

Step 1: Determine who will be included in the RTW/light-duty program

In many cases, employers reserve RTW/light-duty programs for employees who are collecting workers' compensation, STD or LTD benefits. However, an employer can open these programs up to a broader group of workers by considering what an employee "can do" rather than what an employee "cannot do" so that workers can remain actively employed. Although these employees are not collecting company provided benefits, they are affecting the hidden cost of absenteeism in the organization.

Employees with disabilities that are not work-related may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), requiring the employer to provide reasonable accommodations. If an employer adopts a light-duty program for employees with work-related injuries, it may be required to offer light duty as an accommodation to employees whose disabilities are not work-related.

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), "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 as a reasonable accommodation if (1) the employee cannot perform his current position because of his disability, with or without a reasonable accommodation; (2) the employee can perform the light duty job, with or without a reasonable accommodation; and (3) 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, absent undue hardship (EEOC, 1996). There is, however, no requirement to create a light duty position or any other position under the ADA (EEOC, 2002)."

In addition, employers should not require a full release to duty (e.g., without restrictions) to those protected under the ADA because this could be in violation of the requirement to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Step 2: Define What Will be Included in the Program

RTW programs include temporary light-, limited- and modified-duty assignments. Light duty typically involves excusing an employee from performing certain tasks that he or she would normally perform. Limited duty may reduce the number of hours that someone normally works in a day. Modified duty may eliminate some tasks and replace them with others more suitable for the employee's physical limitations in the employee's normal position.

Another alternative for employers to consider is creating a bank of limited duty positions (e.g., positions involving administrative duties) on which to draw when an employee is returning to work with limitations. Employers can then place the employee in one of these positions as appropriate, on a temporary basis. As noted above, having such a bank of temporary light-duty positions will subject the employer to extend temporary light duty to nonwork-related injuries.

Step 3: Develop a Written Policy

Employers should design a policy that speaks to the organization's commitment to encouraging employees to return back to work quickly after an injury. They can explain to employees the negative consequences of being out of work such as the reduction or loss in wages. There is also the potential loss of medical coverage after Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave expires or, if not available, the entire duration of the leave if the group health plan does not cover employees who are not actively working. Organizations should let employees know that the company will be staying in contact with them about their progress and ability to return to work. An employer's policy can stipulate that light duty extends only for a specified number of weeks or when the employee reaches maximum medical improvement unless the employee is covered by the ADA and continued reasonable accommodations are available. Policy language should include the need for a return-to-work doctor's note that includes any work restrictions prior to returning to the workplace.

Step 4: Review the Organization's Current Job Descriptions

Employers should carefully review each job description to ensure that the essential functions (those basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation) are well defined. In addition, identifying the physical requirements of the job can assist an employee's health care provider when making the determination of what job duties the employee can or cannot perform.

Step 5: Develop a Bank of Light Duties

Employers can develop a bank of light duties that disabled or injured employees returning to work may perform. A simple way to create such a bank of duties is to ask employees currently in the position what they would do if they had more time. Managers and supervisors should participate in creating the job bank of light duties. Duties should be meaningful and add value to the organization; assigning duties that are viewed as punishment is counterproductive.

A light-duty bank might include the following assignments:

  • Administrative work (e.g., filing, handling mail, answering phones, data entry, shredding).
  • Safety-related tasks (e.g., safety inspection such as checking fire extinguishers, updating material safety data sheets).
  • Ordering and stocking supplies (e.g., first aid, office supplies).
  • Shipping and packaging duties.
  • Providing training to others.
  • Completing any needed training for professional development.

Step 6: Develop a Form

Employers that place an employee in an RTW program should develop a form that outlines the light-duty job assignment and defines when the employer expects the light duty assignment to end. The form should specifically identify the following:

  • The start date of the temporary position and the anticipated end date.
  • The employee's new days and hours of work.
  • The name and title of the person to whom the employee will report.
  • The deadline for the employee's acceptance of the temporary position; seven days is customary for allowing the employee to consider the offer.
  • A statement informing the employee of the consequences of not accepting the temporary position. Although an employer cannot mandate or require the employee to accept a light-duty position, if light duty is offered and the employee declines the work, the employee may become disqualified for workers' compensation benefits.
  • The employee's acceptance or refusal of the offer of light, limited or modified duty.
  • The employee's printed name, signature and date.
  • The name and contact information of the person to whom any questions should be directed, and to whom the form must be returned.

For circumstances covered by the ADA, employers may want to utilize a reasonable accommodation request form to document the need for a light-duty assignment.

Note: If light duty involves the temporary removal of essential functions from the employee's regular job instead of placing the employee in a different position, employers should document how the essential functions will be handled. Taking this step will both help ensure that employees do not perform tasks that are incompatible with their medical restrictions and assist the employer, which may need to defend claims that the employee was required to perform tasks despite his or her restrictions.

Step 7: Designate a RTW Coordinator

A return-to-work coordinator (RTWC) should be identified as the point of contact for all work-related and nonwork-related disabled or injured employees who may be candidates for the light-duty work program. RTWCs should have an understanding of the interplay between the FMLA, STD, workers' compensation and the ADA. In many cases an employee in the human resources department will be the RTWC. RTWCs can facilitate the light-duty process and follow up with supervisors and employees to ensure program compliance.

In addition, the RTWC has access to medical information and can use integrated disability management practices. Integrated disability management considers the coordination of work-related and nonwork-related issues and benefits that can arise with an individual (e.g., workers' compensation, STD, LTD, and if applicable, state disability). A light-duty program can eliminate or reduce the potential costs of these different benefits the individual can be eligible to receive at some point during a leave of absence given that the employee is actively working in some capacity.

Step 8: Communicate the Policy

Employers should communicate the organization's RTW program in their new-hire onboarding process. Whenever an employer has the opportunity to speak about the company's workplace safety or leave management issues, it should mention its RTW program and a point of contact to coordinate RTW issues.

When an employee's period of light duty ends, if the employee continues to be limited, employers should consider their obligations under the ADA and engage in the interactive process for providing accommodations in the employee's existing position. See How to Handle an Employee's ADA Request for Reasonable Accommodation.


Related Resources

Must an employer accommodate an employee who cannot perform the essential job functions?

EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Workers' Compensation and the ADA

How should I handle an employee returning from FMLA with light-duty restrictions?

Return-to-Work Program Samples


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