Americans are awfully fickle. What’s hot one day easily can fall out of favor the next, often for no apparent reason. That’s true for clothing styles, restaurants, celebrities, TV shows–and approaches to disability management.
The Americans with Disabilities Act has played to mixed reviews.
Social Security has invested heavily in a program called “Ticket to Work” that has had what appears to be only limited success.
Private insurers have made considerable efforts to rehabilitate disabled workers and return them to an active lifestyle using return-to-work programs.
Effective RTW programs can help employers improve morale and cut workers’ compensation expenses, medical costs and the costs associated with work force replacement. The employees themselves benefit from faster recovery speeds, wage continuation, higher morale and less reinjury.
However, RTW programs have fallen out of favor with many employers in recent years. If employers aren’t interested in using these programs, brokers aren’t interested in promoting the concept.
One big question is what went wrong?
Another question is when will the aging of the American work force make employers take another look at return to work and other efforts to accommodate mature, experienced employees?
In recent years, many employers have decided that they will take an employee who is trying to return from a long disability leave only if the employee can come back at 100% and without any restrictions.
Meanwhile, many employers have experienced significant increases in the incidence of short- and long-term disability. Between 2003 and 2004, long-term disability incidence rates increased at 27% of employers surveyed and decreased at just 5% of employers, according to JHA Inc., Portland, Maine.
Today, a growing number of employers hold employees’ positions open only 12 weeks–just long enough to comply with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. If employees want to return from disability after 12 weeks, they have to apply for open positions.
These employers’ reluctance to take back experienced workers after an injury or extended illness is surprising in light of the evolving work force. The changing demographics and the aging of our society will produce shortages of workers at all skill levels. By 2012, our economy may have three million to five million more jobs than workers.
Employers who think ahead are recognizing the cost of finding and training new employees, especially for higher skilled positions. These employers already are trying to persuade older employees to work past retirement, either full time or part time. If this trend grows as quickly as expected, employers will have to deal with more employees with disabilities and more need for accommodations.