It's a universal truth that the longer an employee is absentfrom work after a job-related injury, the harder it is to return towork at all. Workers' Compensation costs for the employer arehigher as well including those related to business expenses such aslost productivity, overtime, decreased morale, increased premiums,and the costs of hiring and training a new employee to replace theinjured employee.

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An on-the-job injury is the proverbial rock-and-hard-placescenario that spawned Stay-at-Work programs. If planned andexecuted correctly, Stay-at-Work (and its close cousin,Return-to-Work) provide paths to bring injured workers back tolight-duty or transitional work quickly and safely. Both arecrucial in controlling Workers' Compensation expenses.

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Some employers aggressively develop innovative ways to minimizecosts related to worker injuries. Others simply shrug theirshoulders at the current insurance landscape, figure they have topay what they owe, and grudgingly write the checks. It doesn't haveto be that way. For employers with significant Workers'Compensation expenditures, a Stay-at-Work program is a proactiveway to reduce direct labor expenses.

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How a Stay-at-Work program works

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If a company has a Stay-At-Work program in place before aninjury takes place, the employee sees the company doctor or adesignated healthcare clinic immediately following the injury. Thephysician knows in advance that there is a Stay-at-Work program inplace and will provide a functional physical capacity analysis forthe injured employee. The idea is for the employee to return towork in a temporary position that meets the physical limitationscriteria requested by the physician. Depending on the injury, thisapproach can result in no lost time from work.

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Eventually, the employee returns to full capacity. This desiredoutcome benefits the employee who has a sustained income during theinjury period. It benefits the employer with an improved experiencemodifier, which is the adjustment of annual premium based onprevious loss experience (other work-site injuries).

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An employee who returns to work with full capacity improves theemployer's experience modification factor over time. A factor thatdrops below the average for the employer's industry delivers acompetitive edge to capture new business. Additionally, there isthe potential to reduce employee turnover because the workforceknows the employer has their best interests (both financial andmedical) in mind, which creates trust and loyalty between theparties.

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Despite the obvious benefits, not everyone embraces theStay-at-Work concept. Even when Workers' Compensation experiencemodification factors are 25 or 50 percent above the norm for theirindustry classification, some employers balk. They might opposehaving employees working at less than a 100 percent capacity, orthey don't have light or modified duty jobs to offer. Employers ofunionized businesses are sometimes concerned about labor pushback.

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If an employer offers a safe place to work, but still hasWorkers' Compensation premiums averaging 25 or 50 percent higherthan competitors, it is time to consider a new approach. There arelight-duty jobs in most companies that an injured employee canperform. One can assume that the employee would rather work andearn a full paycheck than sit at home collecting 70 percent of hisaverage weekly wage. The company is paying the wages anyway due tothe statutory Workers' Compensation insurance policy, which isanother reason why a Stay-at-Work program makes sense.

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The actual cost for medical and lost wages expenses on aWorkers' Compensation claim only represent a fraction of the truecost to the employer for a work-related injury. For instance, thereis significant expense related to investigating a claim, completingand filing paperwork, complying with OSHA and state Department ofLabor work safety and injury rules, and looking for a replacementworker if the injured employee does not come back to work. OSHA hasestimated that the indirect costs of a work-related injury claimare somewhere between three to 10 times the direct cost of aWorkers' Compensation claim.

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Unions tend to embrace Stay-at-Work programs because it helpsemployees return to full duties more quickly, the injured employeedoes not experience a drop in take-home pay, and working employeesare better able to stay connected to their co-workers andcompanies, helping to reduce the indirect costs of work-relatedinjuries for employers.

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It is important to avoid making assumptions about what anyemployee with an injury, illness or disability can do. In manyindustries, flexible work arrangements, accessible technology andoffice automation have increased the capabilities of employees andmade it easier for them to do their jobs in alternative ways.

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Free resources are available to facilitate a Stay-at-Work orReturn-to-Work strategy. One place to start is to read theDepartment of Labor's Return-to-WorkToolkit. The Wage and Hourly Division Office of DisabilityEmployment Policy also publishes a factsheet with information on Stay-at-Work, Return-to-Work, and theFamily and Medical Leave Act.

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For employers with significant Workers' Compensation expenses, aStay-at-Work program offers a way to control costs while building atighter bond with employees. It's worth considering.

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