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The Human Side of Workers' Compensation

By Alicia DePalma, Claims Consultant, Lockton Companies

Alicia DePalma, Claims Consultant, Lockton Companies

Employers often view workers’ compensation as a state-by-state regulatory monster that can be mildly frustrating at best, with substantial impacts on productivity and the bottom line. What some employers overlook is that the process can be terrifying for the injured employee. The human side to workers’ compensation can get lost in the shuffle. Imagine being hurt performing some function of a job you do every day. Where do you go for treatment? How will you get paid? Will your co-workers, supervisor, or company view you differently? What if you’re never “quite the same?” Even with a separate department tasked with risk management, employers need to include Human Resources in the workers’ compensation conversation and process.

Collaboration between human resources and risk management functions is natural to the workers’ compensation claims process. HR is often the point of contact for critical lost time information, such as wage statements and work history. HR is also the keeper of information that is essential to employee performance and job status. Termination, reductions in hours, or a layoff can significantly impact an employer’s options for resolving a workers’ compensation claim. Additionally, a siloed approach between risk management and HR can lead to more costly claim results. For example, HR can serve a pivotal role in an employer’s return to work program. Since they touch every department within the organization, HR may be aware of absences that could offer temporary work for an injured employee who is returning to work in a modified duty capacity.

"Soft touchpoints, such as follow-up phone calls to check on the injured employee or mailing a letter that includes a guide for injured workers, can be instrumental in returning employees to work healthily and productively"

If an employee accommodation is necessary for a return to work after an injury, HR should be engaged to ensure compliance with ADA considerations. Finally, employees routinely interact with HR concerning a variety of sensitive health and benefit-related issues, positioning them uniquely within the organization as trusted advisors. For employees, this mindset often extends to workers’ compensation. HR professionals familiar with the company’s claim reporting and management processes are better equipped to provide answers to employees who may otherwise seek this information from a third party, such as an attorney.

Even if HR is not tasked with any specific workers’ compensation responsibilities, all employers should have written policies to address employee absence that are consistent for leave whether or not related to a work injury. These policies should address items such as the Family and Medical Leave Act running concurrently with absence related to a work injury or how the waiting period for lost time benefits will be satisfied (i.e., sick time, vacation time, paid time off, etc.). Employers should evaluate policies that govern job abandonment and performance issues that could lead to termination. These policies must be consistently enforced on all claims to avoid potential exposure to employment practices and management liability issues. Employees should be reminded that all written policies remain in effect while they are losing time-related to a work injury.

In recent years, some employers have investigated an Integrated Disability Management approach to employee absence, whether related to work or non-work injury. This approach involves a single contact point for all types of disability, leave and workers’ compensation benefits, and maybe contracted to an outside vendor, such as a third-party administrator. While this approach may include an extra cost to organizations, advantages could outweigh these costs. An integrated approach can streamline the process for employees, reducing the frustration and confusion that can accompany an injury or absence. A more efficient receipt of information can ensure timely and accurate payment of benefits, such as wage replacement benefits under workers’ compensation or disability. Data that is collected across all programs can also provide a more holistic view of the health of an employer’s population, leading to wellness initiatives that can impact morale and employee productivity.

When managing workers’ compensation claims, employers should prioritize the employee’s well-being through education of the process, consistent communication, and reminders of the employee’s value to the company; human resources is a natural fit for this task. “Soft” touchpoints, such as follow-up phone calls to check on the injured employee or mailing a letter that includes a guide for injured workers, can be instrumental in returning employees to work healthily and productively. This human side to workers’ compensation could be the difference between retaining a valuable employee and a valuable employee retaining an attorney.

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