UW News

February 23, 2012

New 'light duty' law provides incentives for early returns to work

News and Information

A new state law that encourages employers to get injured workers back in the workplace with temporary accommodations – either reduced workloads or in some cases reassignments – recently went into effect.

The biggest incentive for employers, including the UW, is money:  The “Stay at Work” program provides wage reimbursement for up to 66 days of work in light duty or transitional work in a 24-month period, with a maximum claim of $10,000. Reimbursement can cover 50 percent of the base wage.

In addition, the new regulation provides for up to $1,000 of training reimbursement per claim, including such costs as tuition, fees, books and other training materials. Clothing or tools and equipment are covered up to $2,500, when these are necessary for the temporary accommodation.

A department that is able to accommodate an injured worker with a temporary assignment will receive this reimbursement through the Office of Risk Management.

While individual units indirectly face the costs of workers compensation insurance, they will now directly see the benefit of reducing those costs through these reimbursements for light duty work.  “Individual units pay their share of workers compensation indirectly through the universitys benefit load rate,” says Shari Spung, director of claims services in risk management, and the universitys experience with time loss is a major factor in workers compensation premiums. “Up until now, we havent had a financial incentive that directly encouraged units to bring people back to work as soon as they were able to contribute.  Now, they will get a check to deposit into their department budget.”

“This change will encourage units to think creatively about how to structure light duty assignments,” says Wendy Winslow-Nason, senior claims specialist. “Over time, it can change the culture in the workplace. We want to encourage people to stay at work if possible and medically appropriate, and these incentives will encourage units to find ways to accommodate injured employees.”

But getting people back to work isnt just a matter of dollars and cents. Research shows that injured workers who return to the workplace quickly have better recoveries, keep their connection to work and are more likely to be fully re-employed. In contrast, a high percentage of workers who are totally out of the workplace more than six months never return to work.

The overall budget impacts on the UW could be substantial. Injured workers covered by the universitys insurance file nearly 1,200 claims with the state Department of Labor and Industries each year, and about 20 percent of those involve workers who lose time due to workplace injuries. In addition, the UW will be paying the state about $160,000 to Labor and Industries for costs associated with this new “Stay at Work.” program. Were hoping to recover those payments, if not more money, through workplace accommodations,” Spung says.

If an injury in the workplace occurs, Risk Management becomes involved. A medical report of what the injured worker needs in the form of accommodation will come to their office, which will begin discussions with the employing department, Winslow-Nason says. “The most common strategy is to modify the current job in some way, although in some cases the person can be reassigned to other duties.” Risk Management is also working with Human Resources to develop additional options for reassignment across departments.

Harborview Medical Center has had long-standing policies to encourage light duty work for injured employees, but adding financial incentives “changes the game,” says Paula Minton-Foltz, assistant administrator for patient care services. “Our policy is first to try and place people in their home unit with the necessary restrictions on work, whether its the length of shift or such things as restrictions on lifting.” But Minton-Foltz will look well beyond the home unit for light-duty opportunities. With nurses, this could involve help with auditing and analysis, or perhaps a temporary assignment to help with employee vaccination.

“Weve found that bringing people back is a way of keeping them engaged,” she says. “It also shows that the medical center cares about them and seeks their continued involvement.”

Historically, the temporary light duty could affect unit budgets adversely. “But getting reimbursed for light duty assignments provides units with an added incentive,” she says.

More information about “Stay at Work” is available on the Risk Management website (http://f2.washington.edu/treasury/riskmgmt/sites/default/files/SAWFAQ.pdf).