Disability Works

Getting Reasonable: Return-to-Work and Stay-at-Work Accommodations

To date, the focus has mostly been on making reasonable work accommodations that address work tools and workplace accessibility. Now add strategies like return-to-work and stay-at-work accommodations to retain valuable talent and manage HR costs associated with turnover. — By Jeremiah Prince

By now, employers are familiar with the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and its basic requirements. Also to date, implementation of the reasonable accommodations ADA provision has focused on providing workplace tools, like furniture and specialized technologies, and providing improved workplace access to people with disabilities.

Now reasonable accommodations are evolving to include practices benefitting employees and employers even more: Return-to-work and stay-at-work strategies. Any time an employee leaves a job permanently, there are costs associated with recruiting and hiring a replacement, training costs, and the cost of lost productivity until the employee gets up to speed.

Employees taking extended leave put jobs in limbo. Engaging an employee in an interactive process to develop a reasonable stay-at-work or return-to-work accommodation strategy that fits the circumstances is a win-win approach.

Changing the Ways Things are Customarily Done
The term "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities is usually considered in terms of things like assistive devices, assistive computer equipment and software, providing interpreters, modifying work schedules, or making physical workplace changes.

The ADA has an underlying principle which is for employers to "…change the way things are customarily done to enable employees with disabilities to work." What constitutes a reasonable accommodation is a constantly changing concept. For example, very expensive assistive computer devices are more readily available and affordable, make it affordable for even small employers who were once priced out of being able to afford them. New technologies like internet-based meetings and videos, and the ability to let people work from home, are evolutionary changes to reasonable accommodations.

The next phase is emerging, and it is the stay-at-work (SAW) and return-to-work (RTW) strategies. In a tight labor market, rising labor costs, and continued underutilization of people with disabilities, it makes sense to either help employees stay at work through accommodation or help them return to work as soon as possible.

One of the points to keep in mind is that employees can develop disabilities after hiring. An employee may develop a chronic illness or be involved in a car accident that requires extensive recuperation time off, frequent medical appointments, or a change in working conditions.

Changing Perspectives
An employer covered by the ADA is required to consider leave requests, even if there are no leave benefits available, the employee has not become eligible for benefits, or the employee has used up paid leave time. Saying it is a requirement to grant leave, unless other reasonable accommodations are available, makes it sound like a forced policy that only benefits the employee. The truth is that retaining talent benefits the employee and the employer.

One of the first steps organizational leaders should take is changing manager and supervisor perspectives on leave requests and their role in making reasonable accommodation. An undue hardship, as defined by the ADA, is an action that requires "significant difficulty or expense."

The ultimate goal is to enable employees to return to or stay in their jobs.
Balancing the cost of replacing an employee against the cost of hiring a temporary or permanent replacement is a financial evaluation, and the answer may be surprising. The Work Institute found that it costs $15,000 per person to replace someone earning $45,000 per year, and that 75 percent of the causes for employee turnover could have been prevented. These facts change what undue hardship means.

A return-to-work strategy does not mean the employer is required to accommodate an excessive leave request. This has been tested in numerous courts. However, helping an employee return to work as soon as possible or stay in a job is a good business strategy.

For example, an employee could possibly return to work sooner if the employer provides accommodations, like through work schedule adjustments for physical therapy or other medical appointments. Perhaps the employer can adjust job duties, or place an employee in a vacant position, to accommodate an employee's injury or illness from which the person is still recovering.

The Interactive Process: Talking About Needs and Accommodations
Return-to-work policies cannot inform employees they can only return to work if there are no restrictions. The EEOC has determined policies should talk about job performance in terms of reasonable accommodation, if necessary.

Employers should encourage employees, in an interactive process, to let the employer know what is needed to return to work. The policy also cannot state the employees must return to work if they run out of leave (called a bright line policy) because that is not offering reasonable accommodation. In an interactive process, the employer talks to the employee about needs, gathers additional information for decision-making purposes, and uses the information to assess what reasonable accommodation options. Another option may exist: A non-leave accommodation.

A stay-at-work approach is usually the preferred option, though not always possible. A stay-at-work policy also uses an interactive process to determine what it would take for a person to keep working, rather than taking leave. Some options include assistive devices, letting the person work from home, shifting job duties temporarily, and letting the person work a part-time schedule for a period of time, and so on.

Educating Managers
Educating managers on reasonable accommodations, undue hardship, and RTW and SAW programs is crucial to retaining valued employees, maintaining workforce productivity and controlling costs. The RTW and SAW programs need clear policies that business leaders understand and can put into practice.

The ultimate goal is to enable employees to return to or stay in their jobs. This is an important point because there is the temptation to think of reasonable accommodations as costly and not productive for the business. The truth is quite different. There needs to be a system in place for initiating the integrative process, so the discussion takes place.

There are more advantages to having RTW and SAW policies and processes. It is proof the employer truly appreciates and values its employees and their welfare.

Employers that have employee assistance programs can incorporate the reasonable accommodation program which strengthens the commitment to employees. From this perspective, RTW and SAW programs are employee engagement policies and programs.