How to Create a Workers’ Comp Return-to-Work Program

Return to work program with injured worker at desk job
Mordechai Kamenetsky
Last Updated: 
June 19, 2023
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Every business owner knows that a workplace accident usually means two things. First, an employee will likely be out of work while they recover with the help of your workers’ comp insurance. Second, your rates are probably going to go up if the incident affects your Ex-Mod rate

The good news is that a worker’s comp return-to-work program can offer substantial benefits to your employees, benefit the business, and lower your insurance costs. 

What is a Workers’ Comp Return-to-Work Program?

What is a Workers’ Comp Return-to-Work Program?

You might be more familiar with the term “light duty” return-to-work program or early stay-at-work/return-to-work program. Essentially, these are structured plans that allow injured employees to return to work as soon as they’re physically able, rather than forcing them to wait until they have recovered enough to return to their previous duties.

According to the US Department of Labor, “many injured or ill workers could remain in their jobs or the workforce if they received timely, effective help. Early stay-at-work/return-to-work strategies and programs succeed by returning injured workers to productivity as soon as medically possible during their recovery process.”
What are the benefits of a Return-to-Work Program?

What are the benefits of a Return-to-Work Program?

A workers’ comp return to work program offers benefits to both employers and employees. 

For Employers

Employers benefit from a return-to-work light-duty program in a few important ways, including the following:

  • Reduced absenteeism/fewer days away from work
  • Reduced short-term and long-term disability costs
  • Increased employee productivity
  • Reduced overtime pay for workers filling in for employees on medical leave
  • Reduced recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and other administrative tasks for sourcing temporary employees to fill gaps
  • Reduced workers’ compensation claim costs

For Employees

For employees, such a program offers other benefits, including:

  • The ability to retain more of their earnings than what workers’ comp would pay on its own
  • The ability to maintain their skills
  • The ability to contribute to the organization
  • Improved healing/recovery time
  • The chance to remain socially engaged with coworkers
  • A renewed sense of purpose and connectedness
Return to work program with injured worker at desk job

As you can see, the benefits of a return-to-work program are substantial. However, it does require specific steps to create a successful strategy.

How to create a Return-to-Work Program

How to create a Return-to-Work Program

Before you and your employees can benefit from a return-to-work program, it’s important to create one that fits your organization’s needs and goals, while providing important support to employees. We’ll break this process down into multiple steps to help those assessing the costs and benefits of return-to-work programs.

Step 1: What’s included?

Step 1: What’s included?

You have a great deal of flexibility when creating a workers’ comp return to work program. That includes what you will include in the program in terms of duties. These programs can include three broad types of duties:

  • Light-duty work
  • Limited-duty work
  • Modified-duty work

While they’re all similar, they’re not identical. Let’s break them down into greater detail.

1. Light-Duty Work

Light-duty work generally involves disallowing an employee from performing most of the tasks they would have normally. Administrative tasks are good examples of light-duty work.

2. Limited-Duty Work

Limited-duty work bumps things up a bit. Employees might be allowed to perform some of their normal tasks, but would be limited in the number of hours they could do them or work at all. For instance, an employee might be able to perform their previous duties but be unable to stand for a full shift. In that case, you could assign them half-days (or whatever duration suited their abilities). 

3. Modified-Duty Work

Modified-duty work is often a combination of some normal tasks and others that are more suitable for an employee with limited physical mobility. For instance, an employee might be able to perform half of their regular duties but then would handle others better suited to their abilities, including administrative tasks, providing training to other employees, and more.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Each organization will need to find the right combination of work to suit their needs and their employees.

Step 2: Create your policy

Step 2: Create your policy

Businesses should have written policies that spell out all programs. That applies to everything from your safety program to your return-to-work program. A written policy gives employees, managers, and others a concrete definition of how the program works, what is expected from the employee, and what the organization is prepared to do to help them return to employment. 

creating return to work program

The policy should spell out the organization’s commitment to helping employees return to regular employment. It might highlight potential negative outcomes of not returning early, such as slower healing, loss of skills, and more. Of course, it should also spell out what’s included in terms of light, limited, and modified duties and how these will work in terms of duration. 

Step 3: Dig deep into job descriptions

Step 3: Dig deep into job descriptions

Because returning employees may be placed into other job roles, you need to dig into those job descriptions. Are they accurate? Do they adequately describe what’s required and expected of an employee in that position? What physical requirements does the job have? Make sure your descriptions are as detailed and accurate as possible to help ensure a good fit for returning employees. 

Remember – you cannot simply drop an employee into any open position and expect them to flourish. There must be a good fit in terms of skills and capabilities.

Step 4: Create a range of light duties

Step 4: Create a range of light duties

Rather than placing a returning employee into an existing permanent position, it might be better to create a range of light duties that those employees can perform while they recover. These tasks should not be physically strenuous or particularly active, but they should be more than mere “busywork”. Remember that your employee’s sense of value and connection with the company relies on this.

One option is to speak with managers within the organization. What tasks do they routinely have to put off because they lack the time? What would they like to outsource to someone else so that they can focus on more mission-critical tasks? 

Some examples of light duties include administrative work, safety inspections, supply ordering and stocking, training, professional development, and more.

Step 5: Create a road to recovery

Step 5: Create a road to recovery

When employees begin to transition back to work, they must have a defined road to recovery. This should be a form that provides them with an outline of what’s expected of them, and all other pertinent information, such as when they’ll begin and when you anticipate the position ending. It should also include their work schedule, supervisor name, acceptance deadline for the offer, and a place for the employee to sign and date the form. You may also want to include the name and contact information of anyone who would answer questions for the employee.

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Step 6: Put someone in charge

Step 6: Put someone in charge

Now it’s time to name a coordinator for the program. This should be someone who has deep knowledge of your workers’ comp return to work program, the organization, and other related areas, such as the FMLA and ADA. They will primarily act as the contact for all employees who may be candidates for your program, but they will also have access to sensitive medical information. 

Step 7: Inform your Employees

Step 7: Inform your Employees

The final step is to inform your employees of the program, its benefits, and how it works. This can be done in many ways, including in-person meetings, the onboarding process, during safety training meetings, and more. 

Optional: Who’s allowed in the Program?

Optional: Who’s allowed in the Program?

In many cases, employers choose to make their return-to-work program specific to employees returning to work after an accident covered by workers’ comp. However, you don’t need to limit it to just those people. Allowing other employees into the program can offer benefits, such as accommodating those with disabilities.

Protection Begins with the Right Workers’ Compensation Coverage

Protection Begins with the Right Workers’ Compensation Coverage

While a workers’ comp return-to-work program can be incredibly beneficial, your responsibilities as an employer begin before an employee is injured. Having a current workers’ compensation policy is essential – in most states, it’s a requirement

It can be challenging to find a policy that fits your needs and budget. Many insurance carriers don’t offer workers’ comp, while others may not be willing to insure your business because of their underwriter guidelines. However, without a valid workers’ comp policy, you could face significant fallout in the form of lawsuits, fines, and even criminal charges. 

At Kickstand Insurance, we work with clients across industries to help them get the insurance coverage they need. It takes just five minutes to complete our brief online form and start the quote process. One of our experienced insurance specialists will then reach out to discuss your needs and help determine how to create a policy that reflects those requirements while saving as much money as possible.

Ultimately, workers’ comp insurance and a return-to-work program can be two keys to the challenge of becoming an employer of note and growing your organization. You provide your employees with the protection they deserve while providing them with a helping hand when it’s time to come back to work. Of course, you’ll also benefit from improved productivity, decreased costs, and fewer administrative headaches!

Note: The information provided in this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional legal or insurance advice. Laws and regulations regarding workers' compensation insurance are complex and vary by state and by specific circumstances. Therefore, readers are encouraged to consult with a qualified legal or insurance professional to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem they might have.

Mordechai Kamenetsky

Mordechai Kamenetsky, co-founder and lead agent of Kickstand, is recognized as an expert in workers' compensation. He is passionate about helping small businesses manage risks and lower their workers' comp costs. In his articles, he educates readers and clients on the intricacies of workers' comp insurance.

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