Dr. Richard Pimentel, senior partner with Milt Wright & Associates and a national expert on disability management, job recruitment, job retention, the ADA, and attitude change, delivered the keynote address November 11, 2010, at the 19th Annual National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Pimentel's oration, "Doing More with Less: Lessons Learned from the Recession," was a lively and timely discussion of the challenges faced by firms and individuals endeavoring to get injured employees back to work.
Pimentel indicated that while considerable amounts of ink have been spilled chronicling the financial and regulatory difficulties facing businesses during the current deep recession, inadequate attention has been focused on the burdens these tough times have placed upon injured workers—many of whom desperately want to return to work—and upon the dedicated individuals in employer safety and transitional work programs around the nation who are trying to assist them.
Finding Transitional Positions in the Face of Layoffs
Pimentel identified a number of significant obstacles currently being encountered by those in the return-to-work field. First and foremost, it's difficult to convince supervisors and decision-makers to place injured workers in transitional positions when the company is laying others off. Worse, the RTW specialist devotes time and energy in securing a transitional spot for a worker who is trying to get back on his or her feet and the rug then gets pulled out from under everyone by a new series of layoffs that are necessary for company survival. That the layoff had nothing to do with the worker's injured status is little solace. The blow to the worker's psyche can still be great.
Psychological Disincentives to Get Well
Pimentel chronicled another problem associated with today's economy. As most economic commentators mention on the daily news shows, employment tends to lag the actual recovery; it "ticks" up well after the economy itself has begun to rebound. And so the injured worker sits at home, bombarded by sad overall employment news. She hasn't had a telephone call from the RTW specialist in weeks. She begins to realize what sits at the end of her recuperative period: no job and a potential end to her disability benefits. The difficult economic times have produced an incentive not to get well. Some workers sit in their homes and in the face of the harsh economic outlook have hunkered down and said, "you just try to get me well."
Burdens of Those Who Remain in Their Jobs
Pimentel reminded the audience not to forget the burdens that the economic recession has placed on those who remain in their jobs. They face nagging thoughts, such as, "am I next?" They likely face the burden of extra work. They may feel frustrated; they're doing more work for the same pay and they know that the chances of getting a raise are nonexistent. Pimentel added that it isn't surprising that following layoffs, those who used to work for the company often have a better feeling toward it than those who remain.
Transitional Employment in Hard Times—What Can You Do?
Facing these sorts of challenging headwinds, what does the RTW specialist or firm do? Some have, of course, just given up. Pimentel's answer is to shift priority. He stated, "Don't focus so much on transitional if you don't have it; focus on other things." He counseled the audience to be proactive.
"All too many people wait for the paperwork from the physicians. It's time to intervene and see what can be done." Pimentel pointed to a medical fact of life. They physician didn't have sufficient time to spend with the patient. He or she had pressures of their own to move on to the next examining room. Nevertheless, the physician faced the completion of a work form. Could the employee return to work or should he be sent home? Pimentel indicated that if the physician had insufficient information about the worker's job, or the availability of light or transitional work, there was a tendency to take the safe path: send the worker home. Pimentel estimated that as much as 20 percent of lost time from work injuries could be eliminated if the physician was given sufficient information about what transitional possibilities there were at the plant.
Turning Indemnity Claims into Medical Only Claims
"If you can get them back to work, you turn an indemnity claim into a med only claim," touted Pimentel. He added, "That generally will result in lower reserves." In a bad economy, reserves are even more important to a business. Pimentel indicated that during the past 20 years, many companies have moved from a position where they could generate reserves through cash flow to a position where the reserves now must be generated by drawing down on credit lines. That can be an expensive proposition since banks and other lenders have tightened their lending practices. It can also be debilitating for the firm as the use of credit lines for reserves saps capital from other, more profitable, firm enterprises. If the HR professional can save in the reserve department, the firm will have more money to spend on its standard business.
Twenty years ago, the firm could buy an investment vehicle to guarantee the necessary reserves for a claim. With relatively high interest rates, one could fund a $1 million claim with perhaps an outlay of $200,000. Pimentel reminded the audience that the situation was much different today. With interest rates as low as they are, the same sort of guarantee could cost an outlay of $700,000 - $800,000. This means that the firms workers' comp costs don't have to go up at all to cost significantly more from a cash outlay standpoint.
Review Old Claims
With reserves becoming more and more expensive to fund and support, Pimentel pointed out that a few RTW professionals have developed an ingenious idea: pull old permanent injury claims where you've given up on getting the employee back to work and ask if there isn't something—anything—that can be done? Pimentel indicated that, this sort of effort was certainly more difficult than picking the "low hanging fruit," particularly in a "down" economy but, because of the positive effect success would have with regard to the firm's reserves, the payoff can be huge. Pimentel repeated his mantra, "getting folks back to work is more important than ever."
Don't Forget Those Who Are in Place
Dr. Pimentel returned to a theme that he'd touched on early in his presentation: don't forget those who aren't (yet) injured and who haven't been laid off. He quoted an interesting HR study showing that six months after broad layoffs at a firm, the folks laid off had a better regard for the former employer than the people who were still on the job. In the layoff process, some companies do it right. Candor and communication are the keys. He indicated that companies that get the layoff process wrong generally see more injuries and absenteeism after the layoffs than before. Worse, as soon as the good employee can leave, he/she generally does so. Handling layoffs badly can result in not only a smaller workforce—that's the goal of the layoff—but a less productive group of workers, since the cream of the crop may vanish.
Veterans' Day Salute
Dr. Pimentel's last point dealt with returning veterans. Himself a disabled Vietnam veteran, Pimentel indicated he couldn't let Veterans' Day pass without a word of thanks to the sacrifices made by those in uniform, both here in the U.S. and abroad. He indicated he knew the difficulties facing many returning vets, that his struggles after returning from Vietnam had been significant (Pimentel's inspiring story is the subject of the 2007 Hollywood movie, "The Music Within," starring Ron Livingston). He said he knew that virtually every firm represented in the room had an RTW program in place for injured workers. Pimentel challenged, "But do you have one for returning veterans?" Those returning to the work force, particularly those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, faced a daunting task in becoming assimilated back into American society. Pimentel opined that few groups were as well prepared to be helpful to the veteran than those HR and safety officials who routinely dealt with return-to-work issues. He closed, saying, "A disabled veteran is America's injured worker. As an RTW professional, you can uniquely help his or her situation.”
This article was written by Thomas A. Robinson.
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