Georgia Workers’ Compensation Claim Cost Control: Returning Employees To Work

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By: LeRyan Lambert, Senior Counsel, Atlanta

A recent Gazette article discussed the financial benefits of maintaining valid and effective panels of physicians, and following panel procedure. Now, we will address another cost-controlling measure: preparing for and mitigating litigation costs by returning injured employees to work.

Finding light duty accommodations can be daunting for employers. It is understandably difficult to secure a sedentary position for an automobile mechanic or to meet a no climbing restriction for a satellite technician or painter. Employers often have to scramble to find modified work. Sometimes, by the time the job is created, indemnity benefits are already due as a result of the delay, or the work runs out and the employer is scrambling once again to keep the injured worker working. However, there are preparations that an employer can make to assist these post-injury efforts and to help the business run smoothly.

First, employers can create a set of light duty jobs with the most common work restrictions that can be implemented upon receipt of restricted work orders. Get creative. For instance, if an injured worker is bilingual and placed on sedentary duty, have him transcribe company documents in his native language, if possible. Collect paperwork to be shredded or filed. Need marketing? Prepare large signs ready for injured workers to hold while sitting outside the office. Prepare marketing mailers with the plan for injured workers to stuff and address them. Ultimately, think about tasks that keep getting put off or that could somehow benefit the company if time and resources were available, and preserve those for injured workers. Then, create job descriptions including the physical demands of the position and various modifications that can be accommodated within each (i.e., sit and stand as needed) and have them ready for the next workplace injury.

Second, if an employer simply cannot create modified work for injured employees, the employer can consider using a vendor that returns injured employees to work with a nonprofit. While the employer continues paying the employee his wages, there are long-term benefits for the employer that can justify the immediate costs. For instance, the longer an injured worker remains out of work, the less likely it is that he will return to meaningful work. Putting an employee back to work for a non-profit could expedite a full return to regular work for the employer, avoiding costs of losing a potentially valuable employee and having to find and train a replacement. It also tends to decrease medical costs as working employees are more likely to recover quickly. Simply put, getting injured employees back to meaningful work has proven to decrease indemnity as well as medical exposure. This not only helps employers who are self-insured or with high deductibles, but it also keeps premiums down, dissuades other workers who may believe milking workers’ compensation could benefit them, and mitigates employment force instability.

Third, when an employer secures and offers appropriate light duty work, the employer can mitigate litigation costs by creating a helpful record. Often, an employer can offer appropriate modified work, but the injured worker disputes the offer or appropriateness of the position. In fact, many claimants’ attorneys train their clients to return to modified work to demonstrate willingness, but to then say the job was too difficult or too painful to complete. To avoid unnecessary litigation costs in such circumstances, employers can establish procedures and document the jobs. Employers can have injured workers review the modified job description, and sign off on their willingness to perform the job with start date and time. They can also advise injured workers in writing, prior to starting, that should he feel incapable of performing the job, he should report such to a specific person, so that a record can be taken and job modifications made. Additionally, if there is reason to suspect an employee will allege inability to perform a job, employers can also retain security surveillance during an injured workers’ performance of light duty work. This can avoid he said-she said testimony or false allegations of light duty effort and requirements. Finally, another method to keep an injured worker busy as well as to build evidence against claims of inability to perform, is to have injured workers log their daily activities so that the exact work performed can be summarized contemporaneously. These details can mitigate later exaggerations.

The list of possibilities is infinite, but these small efforts can ultimately save hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical costs, indemnity costs, and legal costs. Once part of an employer’s procedures, they require minimal effort but can create maximum favorable impact.