HR Topics

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


Jun 25, 2013
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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. Return-to-work/light-duty programs can help facilitate this process. 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 return-to-work (RTW)/light-duty program for employers include:

  • A productive workforce.
  • 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.

Employees benefit from a return-to-work program because:

  • They feel more productive.
  • They keep their skills polished.
  • They are likely to return to their pre-injury jobs more quickly.

Who should be included in an employer’s return-to-work/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 if it prefers.

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. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that an employer who reserves dedicated light-duty positions for employees with occupational injuries is also required to reassign an employee with a nonoccupational disability to a vacant, reserved light-duty position as a reasonable accommodation. See, EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Workers’ Compensation and the ADA.

In other words, an employer must apply its policy of creating special light-duty positions for employees with work-related injuries equally to employees who may be disabled due to a non-work-related injury. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers only to remove the marginal functions of a position or to transfer an employee to an existing vacant position as reasonable accommodations; there is no duty to create a new position.

What should be included in a return-to-work /light-duty program?

RTW/light-duty programs include temporary light-duty, limited-duty or 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 may normally work 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 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 non-work-related injuries.

To create an effective return-to-work program follow the steps outlined below.

Step 1: Develop a Written Policy

Design a policy that speaks to the organization’s commitment to getting employees back to work quickly after an injury. Explain to employees the negative consequences of being out of work. 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. 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. Sample policy language can be found at Return to Work: Return to Work Policy.

Step 2: Review Your Current Job Descriptions

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.

Step 3: Develop a Bank of Light Duties

Develop a bank of light duties that 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. (Omit this step if you do not intend to extend temporary light duty to non-work-related injuries.)

Step 4: Develop a Form

Employers who place an employee in a return-to-work program should develop a form that both communicates to the employee in writing that the assignment is temporary and defines when the employer expects the light duty to end. The form should specifically identify the following:

  • The start date of the position.
  • The employee’s hours of work.
  • Name and title of the person to whom the employee will report.
  • Deadline for the employee’s acceptance of light duty; seven days is customary for allowing the employee to consider the light-duty position.
  • Name and contact information of the person to whom any questions should be directed, and to whom the form must be returned.
  • Space for the employee’s printed name, signature and date.
  • Check box where the employee can indicate either acceptance or refusal of the offer of light, limited or modified duty.
  • 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.

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 who may need to defend claims that the employee was required to perform tasks despite his or her restrictions.

A sample temporary work assignment is available at ADA: Return to Work Agreement.

Step 5: Designate a Return To Work Coordinator

The return-to-work coordinator (RTWC) should be the point of contact for all work-related and non-work-related injured employees who may be candidates for the light-duty work program. RTWCs should have an understanding of the interplay between the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), STD, workers’ compensation and the ADA. In many cases the HR generalist will be the RTWC. RTWCs can facilitate the light-duty process and follow up with supervisors and employees to ensure program compliance.

Step 6: Communicate the Policy

Communicate the organization’s return-to-work program in your new hire onboarding process. Whenever you have the opportunity to speak about the company’s workplace safety or leave management issues, be sure to mention your return-to-work program and a point of contact to coordinate return-to-work issues.

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

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