Transitional work programs pay off not only in savings from reduced workers comp claims but also in the mental and psychological boost employees get from feeling valued and staying busy while they’re healing, say a pair of managers of such programs in the healthcare and construction sectors.
Amy Danylchak, systems director for benefits, absence management, and wellness at Summa Health, manages the transitional work program for the eight-hospital system in Akron, Ohio and previously had a similar position at the Goodyear Corp. Monique Sombati is the corporate safety director of S.A. Comunale Co. Inc., an Akron-based construction firm that is a subsidiary of the EMCOR group of companies, with 800 employees and ten branch offices in eight states.
Both companies are self-insured; S.A. Comunale counts union workers among its employees.
The two were part of a panel on “Keeping Employees Health and at Work: The Challenges of Design and Implementation of Transitional Duty Programs” at the Safety Leadership Conference on October 27. Dan O’Brien, an attorney and partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP, led the panel.
O’Brien began by noting that companies with a transitional work program for employees recovering from workers’ comp injuries reduce their indemnity costs by 70%. Reduced duties during the transitional time can range from on-site jobs like office work and light delivery where the physical demands are minimal to paid off-site work with nonprofit organizations, through an arrangement between the employer and the outside agency.
Danylchak said that Summa has a transitional program in part simply because “it’s the right thing to do. It keeps employees productive. There’s a real behavior psychological component, keeping them at work during recovery.”
She spoke of a nurse who herniated a disc on the job and came back during her recovery to do data entry. When she returned to work, the nurse told Danylchak, “‘I am so grateful to be here today. I was going crazy at home.’ Being back in that environment was very important mentally.”
At Summa, the transitional work program brought $130,000 in savings last year. Of 36 lost time claims, 23 employees returned to full work within 90 days.
Summa has a bank of transitional job duties, from working in the call center to doing special projects for a cross-section of departments. “We’ve developed a robust transitional work program, and people around the hospital tend to hear about that,” Danylchak said. “They’ll say, ‘Can you have a nurse come in and do data entry for us?’”
The panelists advised structuring transitional work around a 90-day timetable, with additional time up to 90 more days at the discretion of the employer.
“We typically use the 90-day mark, but it’s not etched in stone,” said Danylchak. “At Goodyear, it was 90 days and you’re out … If they’ve reached a plateau and nothing’s changed, you want to avoid that. But if you can see progression, going beyond the 90 days is completely acceptable.”
Sombati said her company uses nurse managers hired from an outside firm to keep in close contact with the injured employee, developing a good rapport, and assessing when—and whether—the worker is ready to transition back to full duty again.
Since many construction jobs aren’t conducive to accommodating workers with physical limitations, “we will send injured workers who can’t even lift a piece of paper to American Red Cross to be a greeter,” said Sombati. “We are unionized, and it it something we are able to do under our collective bargaining agreement. It gives back to the community, and it’s a good thing to promote. And it keeps our employees working. Last time we had a claim max out to 180 days was January 2012.”
Panelists also suggested setting aside money for transitional work duty as corporate overhead costs, rather than charging it against a specific department’s labor costs. “We have a budget off to the side for this bank of jobs we talked about,” said Danylchak. “That is really critical. [At Goodyear,] I remember plant managers not wanting to pay for transitional duty. They have a productivity target.
“If you’re able to convince them of the benefits, and set up a transitional budget, you will be successful.”