Early last month the EEOC's Aaron Konopasky, JD and Jennifer Christian, MD provided a paper for “Guidance on When Employers Must Start Discussion Regarding Return to Work Accommodations”, which was published on this site via the WorkCompRoundup blog. The message it carried for employers everywhere is significant and should not be ignored. The language of the document is formal, and not overly technical. But plainly spoken the message should be clear; and since it was released in early December while everyone was out Chrishannakwanadaan shopping, it bears repeating in the New Year:
Under expanded requirements of the ADA, “Reasonable accommodation” expectations as they relate to workplace injuries begin much earlier than previously anticipated, and employers not aware of this could be in for a much more expensive claim than anticipated.
The full paper, available here, reads in part:
An employer's reasonable accommodation-related obligations begin[s] as soon as the employer knows that an individual worker is having trouble at work because of a serious medical problem. By definition, if a doctor informs the employer that a worker has medical restrictions/limitations due to a work-related condition, whether or not the employee is actually working, the employer is now aware that a medical problem is having an impact on the employee's ability to work. If the condition has the potential to significantly disrupt the employee's work participation, the employer should immediately engage the worker in an interactive process to look for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Translation? Don’t wait around until a worker is at MMI to see if you have something they can do. You should be working to accommodate your employees special needs while they continue to heal and improve.
For those of us who have been championing the need for vastly improved Return to Function efforts, this is another arrow in the quiver, an additional tool in the tool chest, a rubber mallet with which to beat people over the head to get them to understand.
Returning employees to work earlier helps them and the employer.
Active employees heal faster and more completely. Their mental outlook is better. Their perceived pain levels are lower. And they are not on a path to the enslavement of an unforgiving disability dependency. Shorter claim duration and improved outcome equal lower costs and less accommodation in the future.
Sadly, many employers (and their injured workers) just do not get this, and smaller employers may simply not have the resources to comply. Still, even for a conservative, small government, “get out of my face and leave me alone” kind of guy like me, the expanded view and control of the EEOC’s ADA interpretations mean that injured workers may benefit if their employers are aware of these new expectations. For our society overall, which seems to be on a direct collision course with runaway disability issues, something has to change. This new ruling can help that process tremendously.
Think of it as taking medicine you do not like, but know you need. The bad taste will pass, and you will feel better in the long run. So employers, beware. There is a new RTF/RTW Sheriff in town, and MMI ain't what it used to be. Employers best get to returnin' people…..