The traditional school of thought since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 is that it did not apply to state workers’ comp cases because they involve temporary disabilities and work restrictions. Claimants were not considered “qualified individuals with a disability” under the ADA. Even if the ADA provision for a “reasonable accommodation without undue hardship” is to be taken into consideration, the process would not begin until the claimant reached maximum medical improvement (MMI). But informal EEOC guidelines released in December 2014 stated that these traditional understandings may not be legal.
The EEOC release stated that it is “not true” that MMI should be considered the trigger for ADA-related protections for employees and obligations for employers. Employers must begin the ADA interactive process for return to work (RTW) much sooner than commonly thought. The EEOC is saying that workers’ comp and the ADA process are to run simultaneously, not sequentially. In addition, the worker must be an active participant in the process. This is a major surprise to many in the industry.
I have been a proponent of using “the spirit of the ADA” to implement return-to-work practices in workers’ comp programs for 25 years. (See previous ITL article, “Return-to-Work: A Success Story,” June 25, 2014.) However, these new “interactive process” guidelines may change the whole practice of RTW in workers’ comp because most employers and their third-party administrators (TPAs) or insurers typically postpone attempts at a reasonable accommodation until the claimant reaches MMI. That may now be construed as a violation of employee rights and employer obligations under the ADA.
In addition, the EEOC guidelines give a very broad definition of disability and when it applies under the ADA. The EEOC spokesperson said the ADA applies “all the time” and “as soon as notified” when “a medical condition has the potential to significantly disrupt an employee’s work participation. . . . The only relevant question is whether the disability is now, or is perceived as potentially, having an impact on someone’s ability to perform their job, bring home a paycheck and stay employed.”
That is a mouthful to swallow and think about. The ADA would apply if the disability is “perceived” as having an impact on the ability to perform a job. Perceived by whom? The employer? The employee? The physician? What physician?
What does this mean for employers?
The EEOC stated that its biggest concern is the employee who has a disability but who can perform the essential functions of a job with a reasonable accommodation. The cause of the disability is considered irrelevant under the ADA. It will now be very difficult for employers to say that a worker is not a “qualified” individual under the ADA because the person obviously held the job prior to the disability.
The EEOC stated that everyone, including treating physicians, TPAs and employers, should “keep that in mind” but that only the employer is accountable for complying with the ADA. Treating physicians and employer vendors who fail to communicate with employers during the “stay @ home” process may be exposing the employer to increased risk and liability, and the EEOC spokesperson said this failure would be particularly troublesome if a treating physician who is picked by the employer doesn’t tell the employee about adjustments that might allow her to work. The employer may be liable for failing to provide that accommodation even if not properly passed along. The EEOC spokesperson went on to say that physicians and vendors should be educating employers. But who, may I ask, is educating the physicians and employer vendors?
How should employers react to these EEOC process guidelines for workers’ comp and other non-occupational disability programs? Employers should embrace them!
Most that is truly considered workers’ comp managed care and RTW best practices are encompassed in these interactive guidelines: prompt, high-quality medical care followed by 24-hour contact between workers, treating providers and supervisors. Safe return to work, with or without reasonable accommodations, should be the goal from day one and documented in each case, even without intervention by the EEOC.
Sebastian Grasso, CEO of Windham Group in Manchester, NH:
which specializes in “failed return-to-work,” agrees and argues that the EEOC action should be a “wake-up call” for employers. Grasso, like several other industry experts interviewed for this article, said that in his 25-year career in the RTW business his employer/insurer clients have never brought up the ADA in workers’ comp cases. He said the two problems faced on a daily basis in the workers’ comp industry that severely hamper RTW efforts are erroneous job descriptions and inflexible employers who won’t take injured workers back unless they are “100%.” This traditional mindset and passive approach to RTW may now be considered an ADA violation, so employers and insurers may have to re-think their RTW policies and procedures.
Grasso stated; “We get injured workers back to their original jobs; it’s what we do every day. It’s the right thing to do; it’s non-adversarial and benefits all the players in the process.” This approach appears to be both within the spirit and now actual guidelines of the ADA, according to the EEOC.
Ted Ronca (firstname.lastname@example.org), a leading workers’ comp and disability attorney based in New York, also stated that he never saw the ADA brought up in a workers’ comp case in New York in the past 24 years. Ronca also feels employers should “champion” the new approach for workers’ comp RTW programs. He recommends the first thing for employers is to establish job requirements and bring the employee into these preliminary discussions. Ask the worker for his input on reasonable accommodations and document the discussion.
Back when the ADA was enacted in 1990, many believed a slew of litigation would result from workers’ comp cases. This has rarely, if ever, happened. Most experts I have spoken to are not aware of any cases, but the original fears may now come to fruition. As Ronca noted; “75% of the cases in the New York work comp system involve cases where the claimant’s attorney is claiming total disability and seeking a lump-sum award.” Getting that injured worker back to work is not on the claimant’s attorney agenda but should be on the employer’s.
Employers should not fear the ADA but embrace it. The ADA has built-in protections for employers such as that any accommodations must be “reasonable without undue hardship.” This means significantly difficult or expensive. In addition, employers are not required to eliminate or reduce the essential functions of a job even temporarily. The EEOC is simply saying that employers may choose to reduce job demands and productivity expectations on a case-by-case basis and that no blanket policy is appropriate.
However, the EEOC goes on say that the ADA cannot be used to deny a benefit or privilege to which an employee is entitled, such as time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), workers’ comp, disability, sick leave, accrued vacation or any other leave and benefits. The EEOC considers the ADA “civil rights for people with disabilities.”
I just loved the EEOC comment that an employer’s stay @ home policy is not a reasonable accommodation. Not only is an interactive process the right thing to do for disabled workers, it will save money, improve productivity and protect employers from potential ADA violations and obligations.
It may be time to rethink your return to work program. It’s about time!