By Shawntaye Hopkins
The Council of State Governments’ recent Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work webinar explored policies that help people in the workforce following disability or injury incurred on or off the job. The webinar also reviewed ways in which policymakers can use the CSG Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Toolkit as a resource.
The toolkit was designed to help state officials increase employment retention and labor force participation among individuals who acquire, or are at-risk of developing, work disabilities.
Maryland Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes said no one can predict being impacted by a disability. In 2017, her teenage son was injured while working as a volunteer firefighter. He fell off the firetruck while marking fire hydrant locations on the road and was run over by that firetruck. He sustained multiple injuries and is currently in rehab.
“Within minutes, seconds I should say, his life changed, our life changed,” Sample-Hughes said. “And I had already started working in this space … but not knowing that one day I would have to understand it a little bit more.”
Sample-Hughes said her son was preparing academically and physically for fire service long term. “But now we are, as a family, looking at and having to make adjustments for his work life.”
Sample-Hughes said her work now is both personal and professional as she tries to ensure that the policies and tools are in place for people in the workforce who have been injured on or off the job.
Chris McLaren of the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy said there are policies designed to help workers who experience injury or illness to return to or stay at work, including state workers’ compensation policies and public and private disability insurance in the workforce development system.
“But the policies are sparse, and it is difficult to navigate these systems,” McLaren said. “And many workers fall through the cracks.”
He said timely and appropriate services and support can help some workers stay on their job or return to work following a disability. Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work policies focus on providing these services and supports as well as incentives to ultimately improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities.
“They may include things like incentivizing employer accommodation, providing subsidies to employers to rehire individuals, and there’s a growing body of evidence that early intervention strategies that coordinate health care and employment services may significantly improve outcomes for workers,” McLaren said.
The Office of Disability Employment Policy in partnership with the Employment and Training Administration and the Social Security Administration is leading an effort to test the impact of early intervention strategies in an initiative known as RETAIN, which stands for Retaining Employment and Talent After Injury/Illness Network. Eight states—California, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont and Washington—were awarded grants to develop Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work programs.
“We’re looking forward as these states develop and implement their programs to improve Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work outcomes but also to learn, to share best practices along the way,” he said.
Although there are many stakeholders involved in the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work process, “states play a critical role,” McLaren said.
With input from state leaders, subject matter experts and government representatives, the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Toolkit was created by The Council of State Governments and the State Exchange on Employment and Disability in recognition of these policies and the important role that states play.
Beth Kuhn of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, another webinar presenter, said Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work policies are an important issue for businesses because they need talent. For individuals, work not only allows people to feed families but also brings dignity, opportunity and health.
“It’s an issue that touches everyone in a positive way if we do it right,” Kuhn said.
Tennessee state Sen. Becky Massey said it is estimated that state government would save about $83,000 in net benefits for each worker who is retained rather than replaced after the onset of long-term disability. In many cases, people can return to work or stay at work while dealing with their disability.
“That should be the number one goal when anybody receives and on-the-job or off-the-job injury is to get them back to work as quickly as possible,” Massey said.
Bobby Silverstein of the State Exchange on Employment Disability was one of the lead authors of the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Toolkit. Presenting during the webinar, he said the toolkit describes costs and benefits to employers, employees and state governments. The toolkit is not one-size-fits all but takes into account that every state is different and every disability is different. The resource provides principles for state policymakers to use when deciding what to include in legislation.
He said SEED is available to help policymakers who want to use the toolkit and modify policies and legislation for their state.
“The SEED project is here to help and provide policy assistance to you all,” Silverstein said.