Disability Flexibility

Flexible-work arrangements for disabled workers offer employers plenty of benefits, including ways to update and improve their disability-management and return-to-work programs.

Friday, September 2, 2011
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A 31-year-old engineer at Raytheon was in a motor-vehicle accident and broke his hip, heel and wrist bones severely and in multiple places. The accident left him needing a wheelchair and unable to adequately use his dominant hand.

The recovery was lengthy. It wasn't until the pain subsided and the man regained full use of his hand that he sat down with a site nurse, a vendor nurse and Raytheon's loss-time intervention team to talk accommodation options. His supervisor was brought into the discussion, as well as the treatment provider.

The accommodation option that was chosen: full-time telecommuting from home for one full month.

Having an overall "virtual workforce" policy can have many benefits for employers. For a small but growing number of them, telework and other flexible-work arrangements are also starting to have a positive impact on their disability-management and return-to-work programs.

Best practices in this area already exist. That was especially apparent at the 2011 Think Tank held by the San Diego-based Disability Management Employer Coalition this past March in Newport Beach, Calif.

The event brought together thought leaders from numerous U.S.-based organizations.

Raytheon Co. was one participant at the event. The Waltham, Mass.-based aerospace firm has used flexible-work arrangements to transition employees back from medical leave for many years.

"We want to use the virtual workplace as a best practice for return-to-work and accommodation," Robert Rucker, manager of short- and long-term disability for Raytheon, told his peers during the Think Tank.

For instance, virtual working could serve as an accommodation for a disabled employee such as the engineer mentioned above, or as a way to keep someone from going on medical leave completely. An employee diagnosed with cancer who is undergoing weeks of chemotherapy treatments might be an ideal candidate.

"How can telework help that employee stay productive?" Debi Horvath, absence management consultant at Raytheon, asked rhetorically.

Raytheon's overall policy on flexible-work arrangements takes into account that telework does not make sense for all jobs, such as working on the factory floor. A formal agreement must be made between an employee, his or her manager and an HR professional before a flexible-work arrangement is put into place, with supervisors having the ultimate say over whether the arrangement fits (and the employee deserves it based on performance).

GlaxoSmithKline -- another DMEC Think Tank participant, with U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia -- also brings together its disability-management program and its remote-work policies. On occasion, according to Mary Bannan, nurse-case manager for safety and performance at GSK, disabled or injured workers have worked from home as an accommodation when suitable.

"We've done a pretty good job of educating managers around flexible-work options that are medically related," Bannan said during the Think Tank.

As many as one in three of Glaxo's 18,000 U.S. workers telecommute, an impressive number, even when you consider that field sales staff is included in that figure.

This is not to say it's simple to use work-from-home as an accommodation. Employers might wonder what regulatory hurdles they'd have to jump over to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. As noted in the July white paper, Virtual Workforce: The Changing Face of Absence and Productivity in the Technological Age, produced by the DMEC out of the Think Tank, employers are not required by the ADAAA to offer telework as an accommodation.

On the flip side, however, if an employer has a general telecommuting policy, it must give its disabled employees an equal opportunity to enjoy it. When it comes to using telework as an accommodation for disabled workers, it is not clear if employers would have to waive telework-policy-eligibility requirements.

Let's get back to the positive, though. A telework policy can also be -- and is recommended by the Think Tank to be -- intertwined within a company's safety program. Again, follow the lead of GSK.

Bannan related how certified occupational-health nurses are employed by the drug maker to promote injury prevention among its telecommuters. For instance, safety topics teleworkers should know, such as lifting techniques, are promoted through company e-learning courses.

The Remote Dilemma

For employees' home offices, GSK provides ergonomic assessments, done either in person by safety personnel or over the telephone, and is in the process of putting together an ergonomic toolkit.

Interestingly enough, regulators in Great Britain, Glaxo's home country, mandate that it provide safety and ergonomic equipment to remote workers there. No such requirement exists in the United States. So why do it?

"We are embedding a culture of safety within our entire population," said Bannan.

As you can hear trumpeted at a DMEC event or any conference about workers' compensation, creating a culture of safety is a huge step toward reducing injuries and controlling the costs of comp claims. Then again, nothing can prevent accidents and injuries at the worksite altogether.

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Which raises an intriguing question: What happens when that worksite is an employee's home?

Very few court rulings exist to help answer that question. One occurred in 2007, when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a teleworker who was attacked by a neighbor at home while making lunch (Wait vs. Travelers). A more recent case was decided by the Oregon Court of Appeals, involving a JCPenney telecommuter who broke her wrist by tripping over her dog while working from her home.

In both cases, says Jim Pocius, a shareholder in the Scranton, Pa., office of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, the courts had to determine if the injuries arose out of, and occurred in the course of, employment.

In the Oregon case, the court decided that the employee, who tripped on her way to the garage where work items were stored, was more like a traveling employee on an employer assignment. She was furthering her employer's business when she tripped over the dog, Pocius says. Thus, workers' compensation benefits were granted.

In the Tennessee case, Pocius says, the court found that the injury occurred in the course of employment like an injury in an office break room would, but decided that it didn't arise out of employment. The catch here was a specific Tennessee rule that says assaults on the job resulting from "street risk" do not arise out of employment. No benefits here.

"You can see the court struggling in both of these cases trying to make rules that fit the modern society," Pocius says.

One reason so few instances of work-related injuries have made it to the courts in disputes is that work-related injuries in the home office probably aren't reported as such and, instead, find their way into the group-health system, according to the authors of the DMEC white paper.

There is also the gray area of working from afar: How can you know exactly when a telecommuting employee is on or off the clock?

Pocius suggests another reason: Teleworkers might get injured less.

In any case, when testing the telework waters for themselves, employers can lean on strong policies already in place for disability and absence management, such as some of the best practices found in the white paper.

Ultimately, perhaps the best practice of all is to follow the best practices already in place for "regular" workers.

As Marcia Carruthers, CEO of the disability coalition, reiterated to the Think Tank participants, "Once again, tried and true principles of good disability and absence-management programs come into play, whether the person is virtual or not.

"We can draw from our past experience, knowledge and best practices," she said, "and apply them in new ways."

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