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Risk Insider: Terri Rhodes

Absence and Disability Forecast

By: | January 29, 2018 • 4 min read
Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

Each year, I write about the trends and forecasts I see coming for the absence and disability management field for the upcoming year. This year’s forecast complements the trends I highlighted for 2017. As predicted, we did not see much change, if any, in leave laws at the federal level in 2017; however, we continued to see paid family and sick leave regulation at the state and municipal levels. We did see some traction on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. case, but unless more courts rule in the same way, this case likely won’t be a game changer.

Here are the four trends I predict we’ll continue to see in 2018.

Paid Family Leave

Attracting and retaining the best talent continues to be top of mind for organizations, so more employers will offer paid family leave for competitive reasons and because of state and local regulations. We could also see a boost from the recently signed federal tax bill. Employers can receive a partial tax credit for wage benefits paid to employees during leave taken under the FMLA and other specified reasons. The provision of the tax law has numerous conditions and only lasts through 2019 unless renewed by Congress, but it could encourage the private sector trend toward more and richer paid leave.

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State and local governments will continue to expand mandated leave in 2018. Two examples are New York and Washington. Starting on Jan. 1, New York employees who meet time-on-the-job requirements can receive eight weeks of paid leave. This leave entitlement increases to 12 weeks in 2021.

Starting in 2020, Washington will be taking another run at mandated paid family leave and will be the fifth state in the nation to offer paid family and medical leave benefits to workers and employers. The program, which promises to be the most generous, will be funded by premiums paid by both employees and employers and will be administered by the Employment Security Department (ESD).

We think other state and local governments will follow Washington State’s lead to add or enhance mandated leave.

Workplace Mental Health

There is a growing understanding at all levels of society that effectively addressing mental health issues is necessary to enhance individual well-being. It’s also becoming clear that effective mental health screening and treatment is important in lowering costs for employers. Depression, stress, and other mental health issues are major concerns for employers as these conditions tend to be in the top three reasons for absence; pregnancy is number one, and musculoskeletal problems is second.

We hope to see less stigma as the year progresses. The good news is that attitudes are changing. Millennials, for example, are much more likely to acknowledge mental health concerns and seek assistance, according to the 2017 DMEC Pulse Survey conducted last fall on workplace mental health. This means stigma attached to mental illness will likely recede. In 2018, more employers will recognize the importance of identifying employees who want to receive assistance and provide them with resources to get their jobs and careers on track.

Strengthened Processes

Many employers have absence management policies and processes in place. Not all are as strong and efficient as they could be. 2018 will see a focus on strengthening them to achieve greater cost savings and more consistent compliance. Technology will play a large role as employers continue to invest in software and other innovations.

Training and education will also take center stage as an avenue to increase performance and productivity. The Certified Leave Management Specialist (CLMS) designation and the new supervisor training for FMLA and ADA, to be released later this year by DMEC, offer easy access to resources for employers and vendors alike. Both employers and employees understand the value in skill building, productivity enhancement, and increased employment opportunities, making these programs a win-win for organizations.

Technology

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is embedded in our lives, whether we like it or not. So, it makes sense that AI has made its way into absence management as well.

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Integrated absence management (IAM) systems have used AI to identify trends and risks that drive absence and disability costs. We need technology to continue to help us streamline work processes, sort data, look for trends, benchmark, and measure the success of our IAM programs. A number of large employers have demonstrated these technologies’ ROI can be significant. There are also a number of software solutions that track and manage absence available to employers who self manage absence, replacing tedious spreadsheets and sticky note reminders.

In 2018, employers and employees will lose some of the fear of AI as a threat that will usher in a job-destroying dystopia. Rather, we will increasingly view human-computer collaboration as a high-touch/high-tech partnership. Data technologies can do the heavy lifting necessary to drive efficiency and lower costs. But only people can show compassion for employees who are on a leave of absence. That’s not only the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do as employees treated with respect and dignity are less likely to look to litigation and other avenues to meet their needs. As AI and other technologies advance in 2018, so will an emphasis on hiring and training for the “soft skills” increasingly valued in every profession.

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