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  • Writer's pictureSingle Handed Consulting

Taking a Team Approach to Return-to-Work Plans

It may seem counterintuitive, but employers can actually save money in the long term by buying modified equipment for injured workers out of pocket. Katie Leneker remembers one boss who spent $5,000 on specialized glasses for an employee with eye damage. It took some convincing, but eventually he agreed to the purchase. “Retraining would have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Leneker. “Most employers don’t know what options they have when it comes to Return-to-Work plans.”

Leneker helps companies understand those options and facilitates the process of bringing injured workers back to their jobs from start to finish. The biggest challenge for all concerned is communication, she says. “The boss may not understand what the worker is going through. The first few meetings are critically important in developing trust and making sure that everyone knows what to do and has the same level of expectation.”

The Return-to-Work Process

Ideally, businesses will already have a Return-to-Work plan developed before an incident occurs. “If the paperwork and policy are already in place, you’ll get a much better outcome,” says Leneker. Lacking a plan, employers can become frustrated and stressed. Meanwhile, the injured worker is concerned about making ends meet as well as whatever health issues are occurring. “Being off work is extremely adverse mentally, physically, and emotionally,” says Leneker. “The employer can forget that they’re dealing with a human being. My role is to promote the idea of how good it is to help people return to work and teach everyone to get along.”

In the beginning stages, she explains the various options to both employer and employee, including the Department of Labor and Industry’s (L&I) Stay at Work and Preferred Worker programs. “Stay at Work is a bridge to the Preferred Worker program,” Leneker explains. “It provides a temporary incentive to modify the job and reimburses employers for tools and equipment.” Under the Preferred Worker program, employers may receive financial incentives when they hire workers with permanent medical restrictions for medically-approved, long-term jobs.

Developing Return-to-Work Plans

Once everyone understands their choices, Leneker works with the team - including medical professionals - to develop a Return-to-Work plan. “We need the doctors to be on board with us,” she notes. “We’ve had multiple occasions where we sit down with the doctor, the employer, the employee, and sometimes the employee’s attorney. We’ll invite doctors to visit the job site. It really does take a village to get a person back to work.”

With the doctor’s approval, the employer creates a formal job offer letter and informs L&I. “Everyone knows what to expect,” says Leneker. “We explain to the worker what’s going to happen to them in this process and why it’s better for them to get back to work. That becomes their new job.”

Job Modifications and Adaptations

Often, the Return-to-Work plan will involve some sort of modification or adaptation of the job responsibilities or equipment necessary to perform them. “We’ve purchased a lift gate on the back of a truck, so an employee could return to work,” says Leneker. “The modification was paid for by L&I.”

Other workers may need special chairs or Dragon transcription software if they’ve lost their ability to type. “We get all kinds of physical equipment like different kinds of pallet jacks, shoes, chairs, ladders, specialized gloves, and keyboards that split in half,” says Leneker. “If you can dream it, we can make it happen.”

Single Handed differs from other vocational rehab companies in the range of potentials they’ll consider, she contends. “We’re extremely open and creative and we don’t have boundaries in our discussions with employers. We give that same leeway to the injured worker and get their input about what could be done differently. The time and energy spent with both parties become part of the solution.”

Back on the Job

When the employee has returned to work, the process isn’t over. “It’s important to make sure you’re involved in that process,” says Leneker. “Everyone needs to be working toward that final piece, to get the employee returned to work with no restrictions, modify their job, or give them a new one. Employers need to build them up.”

It all comes back to communication, she maintains. “You have to make sure those lines remain open. A disgruntled employee can do a lot of damage. We work on creating a trusting relationship with both sides from the beginning and letting them know that we’re going to help them with whatever they need.”

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