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Cutting costs

Establishing a return-to-work program to help injured employees saves money

By: Christy Witzke

For those of you who may not be aware of it, the OAN has an extremely active and dedicated Safety Committee that helps you keep your workers' compensation rates as low as possible. The committee is composed of a diverse group of growers, including representatives from large and small operations that have a passion for safety. A wide variety of nursery operations are represented, including greenhouses, Christmas trees, landscaping, wholesale container and bare-root.

Born out of the Labor Committee approximately 13 years ago, the Safety Committee felt that it was necessary to have a proactive committee focused on safety prevention to help ensure the safety of workers. Additionally, this committee has helped ensure that workers' compensation rates stay as low as possible for OAN members by developing industry-specific safety programs to help reduce injuries and by using "peer-to-peer" safety programs.

One topic that has repeatedly come up in these meetings is a return-to-work program for injured workers and how such programs can affect not only the individual nursery but also the OAN/SAIF group as a whole.

A recent review of the OAN/SAIF workers' compensation program showed that the frequency of claims (the number of claims per $100,000 in payroll) is going up. This is a negative trend for the group and indicates that more employees are getting injured. Additionally, claims with time-loss are also going up, with 31 days being the average number of time-loss days for these types of claims. For the 12-month time period ending March 31, 2003, the OAN/SAIF group saw its highest average incurred loss figure of $2,652 (highest average amount for workers' compensation claims) since 1997. It is an expectation of the OAN that members will use transitional and light-duty work not only to benefit their bottom line but also to help maintain the OAN/SAIF group discount.

The best way to reduce the cost of claims is obvious: Don't have an injury. However, if an accident occurs, the best way to control the cost of the claim is to have an effective return-to-work policy.

What is a return-to-work program?

A return-to-work program simply provides transitional or temporary jobs, approved by the injured worker's physician, to bring the worker back to work at the earliest possible time, rather than waiting for the worker to be released for normal work duties.

Why is a return-to-work program important?

  • Injured workers off work longer than six months have only a 50 percent chance of returning to their job. If time off exceeds one year, there is a 90 percent chance they will never return to work.
  • Return-to-work programs reduce medical costs. The injured worker heals faster, shortening the time that medical treatment is required.
  • Return-to-work programs reduce legal costs. Workers are less likely to feel their rights have been violated, and there will be no cause for them to hire legal counsel.
  • Cost reductions resulting from return-to-work programs directly affect your organization's workers' compensation premium.
  • If a company belongs to an association program, such as the one through the OAN, return-to-work programs help contain claims costs, which helps the future group discount.

How does a company achieve return-to-work?

The objective can be accomplished by several means. One of the most effective ways to develop transitional or temporary jobs is to remove heavier tasks from the worker's regular job and distribute them to other workers. This method keeps the person in a familiar setting, with his or her peers and facilitates a smooth transition back into the regular job when the worker is fully released. It may also be the simplest mode of providing transitional/temporary work.

Another option is to place the worker into an existing lighter job. The worker cross-trains into another function and becomes a more valuable employee.

A third option is to create a transitional/temporary job around the worker's restrictions. There are always several projects that need to be done in a workplace, projects that never seem to get started or finished. Often an injured worker can complete one or more of these projects while he or she is under physical restrictions.

Establishing a program

Establishing a return-to-work program need not take a great deal of time and effort. More important is the commitment given to the concept from top management down to the workers.

You should feel free to call on your local SAIF Corporation return-to-work consultants for assistance in developing, implementing and administering a program. The return-to-work consultants can help ensure that your policy conforms to the state of Oregon's recommendation for written programs so that you are eligible for the Employer-At-Injury Program when applicable.

State assistance programs

Oregon has created two programs, Employer-At-Injury Program and Preferred Worker Program, each of which can be very effective in reducing claims costs and creating opportunities for injured workers.

EAIP

The Employer-At-Injury Program was created to encourage employers to help their injured workers return to work before their claims are closed. The program offers financial incentives to employers, with the opportunity to modify and create productive work for injured workers while the claim is open.

This is a voluntary program that is activated by the employer. Using the program does not adversely affect premium or claim costs. Some of the benefits include employer reimbursement of 50 percent of the worker's gross wages while on transitional duty, for a maximum reimbursement of three consecutive months; work-site modification ($2,500 maximum); tools and equipment ($1,000 maximum); tuition, books and fees ($750 maximum); and clothing ($400 maximum).

Employers apply for assistance to these programs through SAIF Corporation. To access the EAIP program, contact your return-to-work consultant.

PWP

The Preferred Worker Program was created to encourage the re-employment of qualified Oregon workers who have permanent disabilities from on-the-job injuries and who are not able to return to their regular work because of those injuries. It may be used with the Employer-At-Injury Program or with a new employer.

Following are some of the benefits of this program:

  • Premium exemption - an employer does not pay workers' compensation insurance premiums or premium assessments on a preferred worker for up to three years from the date the worker starts work.
  • Claim cost reimbursement - if a preferred worker has a new injury during the premium exemption period, the Department of Consumer and Business Services will reimburse claim costs to the insurer, and the claim will not increase the employer's workers' compensation rates.
  • Wage subsidy - the DCBS will reimburse an employer 50 percent of a preferred worker's first six months wages.
  • Obtained employment purchases - the DCBS may reimburse the employer for the cost of items purchased to help the worker obtain a job or to continue employment.
  • Work-site modification - the DCBS may reimburse the employer for tools, equipment and work-site redesign needed to help the worker to overcome injury-caused limitations.


Christy Witzke is a loss-control consultant with the SAIF Corporation, the OAN's workers' compensation insurance carrier. If you would like to receive additional information on return-to-work programs, including a sample policy, you can download the information from SAIF's Web site at www.saif.com or contact Witzke directly at (503) 373-8377 or by e-mail at chrwit@saif.com.
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