Improving Outcomes

Building Trust With Injured LGBTQ Employees

Actively addressing issues related to injured workers' sexual orientation or gender identity can help employers overcome hidden barriers to recovery.
By: | June 1, 2017 • 5 min read

Workers’ comp providers and payers in recent years have been taking note of the broad range of social and psychological issues that can impact recovery outcomes for injured workers. But a factor that flies mostly under the radar is how to navigate issues related to employees’ sexual orientation or gender identity.

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Prompt reporting is a key concern with employees that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). Data from the Institute of Medicine and the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest that the LGBTQ population is more likely to delay or avoid seeking treatment because of past discrimination, said Genex branch supervisor Chikita Mann during a recent podcast on the Inside Workers’ Comp blog.

HIPAA privacy rules also work differently within workers’ comp, which can complicate things further, if employees are worried that sexual orientation or gender identity information might be included in the information disclosed to their employers.

Employers should consider the employment non-discrimination laws (or lack thereof) in the states where they operate. There are currently 28 states where employers are not barred from discriminating against or even firing employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBTQ employees working in those states understand all too keenly that even if the law states they can’t be fired for reporting an injury, their sexual orientation or gender identity could easily be used as a smokescreen to justify termination after filing a workers’ comp claim.

Chikita Mann, branch supervisor, Genex

That’s why having a culture of inclusion and a track record of treating all employees with dignity is so important for employers, said Mann.

“When it comes down to it, the company’s culture really has a lot to do with getting the LGBTQ individual back to work,” she said. “If [LGBTQ individuals] feel that the culture of the company is not accepting of them, you have another brick wall as to trying to get them back to work, because it starts from the organization and it trickles down to the workers.”

And the same goes for the culture throughout a company’s workers’ compensation team, both in-house personnel and third-party providers that the injured employee might interface with.

If a gay employee is seriously injured, and the case manager assigned to him snubs or ignores the same-sex partner or spouse at his bedside in the hospital, the injured employee isn’t likely to feel respected, and will have precious little belief in whether his best interests will be looked out for by the workers’ comp team.

In turn, he’ll be less likely to comply with his treatment or return-to-work plan, and will be far more likely to feel that he needs a lawyer to represent him.

Even if it doesn’t come to that, said Mann, studies have found that LGBTQ employees are more likely to suffer from comorbidities such as depression and substance abuse. That makes it all the more urgent that employers connect with them in a positive way before they get isolated.

Setting the Right Tone

Including sexual orientation and gender identity in a company’s non-discrimination policy is important, but companies need to do more to create the kind of environment that will foster better outcomes for all employees.

“You’re dealing with diversity issues of course, but [it’s] really about inclusion, said Minnesota-based harassment and bullying consultant Susan Strauss.

“How do you establish and sustain an organizational climate that is inclusive of the LGBTQ community?”

That means looking at everything from a company’s mission statement and the kinds of advertising messages it presents to whether it includes the LGBTQ community in its recruitment outreach efforts and other community involvement.

“When people feel that they are being really treated with respect and with dignity, we’re going to get the buy in that we need from the individual in order to get back to work.” — Chikita Mann, branch supervisor, Genex

“Organizations should be involved in community efforts that are geared for the LGBTQ community, like any pride parade that might occur, or — depending upon the size of the community — an LGBTQ chamber of commerce,” said Stauss.

“There’s just so much that should be done. It should not be piecemeal. It needs to be a strategic approach.”

It comes down to making inclusiveness part of the organization’s corporate identify. Strauss noted that participating in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) can be a part of the overall strategy for some companies.

The index is the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Top scoring companies earn the distinction of “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.”

“Depending upon your score, that would be something that you would proudly display on your website,” said Strauss, letting potential employees and existing employees know about it.”

Non-government employers in the U.S. with 500 or more full-time employees can request to participate HRC’s Corporate Equality Index.

Ensure Partners Are Aligned

Case managers can help build trust with injured LGBTQ employees by consistently making it clear that the employee is understood and respected, said Genex’s Mann.

“When people feel that they are being really treated with respect and with dignity, we’re going to get the buy in that we need from the individual in order to get back to work,” she said.

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“It’s even more critical with the LGBTQ individual, that we use the motivational interviewing skills. … We are letting them know that, ‘We’re here for you. We’re going to do our best to help you get the medical treatment that you need.’ “

Strauss added that employers should include LGBTQ philosophy among the things they look for in their workers’ comp partners and providers.

“Make sure that everybody you’re doing business with has been educated in what some of the unique challenges might be in dealing with an LGBTQ patient,” she said. The onus is on the employer to ensure that their partners share a commitment to respect, equality and non-discrimination.

Otherwise, “you’re running a risk of that patient being undermined and potentially discriminated against.”

The bottom line, said Mann, is that everyone who comes in contact with injured workers should be reinforcing how much each individual is valued as an employee.

“Everybody wants to be needed, and everybody wants to be shown that they have value. If we can do that, that will go a long way with the LGBTQ individual.”

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Absence Management

Establishing Balance With Volunteers

It’s good business to allow job-leave for volunteer emergency responders, whether or not state laws apply.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

If 2017 had a moniker, it might be “the year of the natural disasters,” thanks to a phenomenal array of catastrophic or severe events— hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, ice storms and floods.

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Combined with smaller-scale fires and other emergencies, these incidents tax the resources of local and state emergency services, often prompting the need to call volunteer emergency responders into action.

But as lean as most organizations are already running, volunteer activities can sometimes cause friction between employees and employers. Handling conflicts the wrong way can potentially lead to legal headaches, harm employee morale and batter a company’s reputation.

State by State Variations

Most employers are aware of the various federal and state leave laws protecting their employees, including family and medical leave, pregnancy leave and military leave. But leave laws that protect the livelihoods of volunteer emergency responders are more likely to fly under the radar of some HR managers and risk managers.

Such laws don’t exist in every state, but more than 20 states do have some type of law in place to protect volunteers including emergency responders, firefighters, disaster workers, medical responders, ambulance drivers or peace officers.

Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management

The laws vary broadly. Nearly all specify that such leave be unpaid, and that employees disclose their volunteer status to employers and provide documentation for each leave. But there is a spectrum of variations in terms of what may trigger an eligible leave. Some, for instance, apply for any emergency that prompts a call from the volunteer’s affiliated responder group. Others may require a government declaration of emergency for the law to be triggered.

While many of the laws do not explicitly require employers to let employees leave work when called to an emergency during a shift, most specify that an employee may be late or even miss work entirely without facing termination or any other adverse employment action.

Some states mandate a maximum number of unpaid leave days that a volunteer can claim. But others may place more significant burdens on employers. In California, for instance, employers with 50 or more employees are required to grant up to 14 days of unpaid leave for training activities in addition to any leave taken to respond to emergency events. For multistate employers, keeping on top of what obligations may apply in each circumstance can be a challenge.

Significant Risks

Large or mid-sized employers may rely on absence management providers to keep them in compliance. For smaller employers though, it may be as simple as looking up a state’s law via Google to find out what’s required. However, checking in with the state department of labor or the company’s attorney may be the best way to get the correct facts.

“I would caution that just because you don’t find something [on the internet], it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said absence management and employment law attorney Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management.

For example, Cardi said, an obscure Texas law provides job-protected leave for volunteer ham radio operators called into service during an emergency.

Cardi said employers should task HR to investigate the laws in each state the company operates in, and to ensure that supervisors are educated about the existence of these laws.

“If a supervisor is told by one of his or her employees, ‘Sorry I’m not coming in today … I’ve been called to volunteer firefighter duty for the [nearby region] fire,’” she said, you want to be sure that the supervisor knows not to take action against the employee, and to contact HR for guidance.

“Training supervisors to be aware of this kind of absence is really important.”

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An employer that does terminate a protected volunteer for responding to an emergency may be ordered to pay back wages and reinstate the employee. In some cases, the employee may also be able to sue for wrongful termination.

And of course, “you don’t want to be the company in the headlines that is getting sued because you fired the volunteer firefighter,” she added.

If an employer bars a volunteer from responding, the worst-case scenario may be a third-party claim. Failure to comply with the law could give rise to a claim along the lines of “‘If you had complied with your statutory obligation to give Jane Doe time to respond, my loved one would not have died,’” explained Philadelphia-based Jonathan Segal, partner at law firm Duane Morris and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute.

“That’s the claim I think is the largest in terms of legal risk.”

Even if no one dies or is seriously injured, he added, “there could still be significant reputational risk if an individual were to go to the media and say, ‘Look, I got called by the fire department and I wasn’t allowed to go.’”

The Right Thing to Do

What employers should be thinking about, Segal said, is that whether or not you have a legal obligation to provide job-protected leave for volunteer responders, “there’s still the question of what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Employee morale should be factored in, he said. The last thing any company wants is for employees to perceive it as insensitive to their interests or the interests of the community at large.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” — Jonathan Segal, partner, Duane Morris; managing principal, Duane Morris Institute

“How is this going to resonate with my employees, with my workforce, how are people going to see this? These are all relevant factors to consider,” he said.

There’s an argument to be made for employers to look at the bigger picture when it comes to any volunteer responders on their payroll, said Segal.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” he said. “Think about the case where’s there’s not a specific state law [for emergency responders] and you say to a volunteer, ‘No, you can’t leave to deal with this fire’ and then people die. You as an employer have potentially played a role, indirectly, because you didn’t allow the first responder or responders to go,” he said.

The bottom line is that “it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s not required by law,” agreed Cardi.

“I feel that companies should have a policy that they’re not going to discipline or discharge someone for absences due to this kind of civic service, subject to verification of course.”

Clear Policy

While most employers do strive to be good corporate citizens, it goes without question that employers need to guard their own interests. It’s not especially likely that volunteer responders will try to take advantage of the unpaid leave allowed them, but of course, it could happen.

That’s why it’s important to have policies that are aligned with state laws. Those policies could include:

  • Notifying the company of any volunteer affiliations either upon hire or as soon they are activated as volunteers.
  • Requiring that employees notify a supervisor as soon as possible if called to an emergency (state requirements vary).
  • Requiring documentation after the event from the head of the entity supervising the volunteer’s activities.

If at some point it becomes excessive – someone has responded to emergencies five times in nine weeks, then it’s time to examine the specifics of the law and have a discussion with the employee about what’s reasonable, said Segal. It may also be time to ask specifics about whether the person is volunteering each time, or are they being called.

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In some cases, the discussion may need to be about finding a middle ground, especially if an employee has taken on an excessively demanding volunteer role.

“We encourage volunteers to pick the style that best fits their schedule,” said Greta Gustafson, a representative of the American Red Cross. “Disaster volunteers can elect to respond to disasters locally, nationally, or even virtually, and each assignment varies in length — from responding overnight to a home fire in your community to deploying across the country for several weeks following a hurricane.

“The Red Cross encourages all volunteers to talk with their employers to determine their availability and to communicate this with their local Red Cross chapter.”

Segal suggests approaching it as an interactive dialogue — borrowing from the ADA. “Employers may need to open a discussion along the lines of ‘I need you here this week because this week we have a deliverable on Friday and you’re critical to that client deliverable,’” he said, but also identify when the employee’s absence would be less critical.

No doubt there will be tough calls. An employer may have its hands full just trying to meet basic customer needs and need all hands on deck.

“That may be a situation where you say, ‘First let me check the law,’” said Segal. If there’s a leave law that applies, “then I’m going to need to comply with it. If there’s not, then you may need to balance competing interests and say, ‘We need you here.’” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]