DMEC 2017

Shift in Trends Dominates DMEC

The changing landscape of mandated leave laws and increased interest in paid parental leave were top of mind for employers attending DMEC in Anaheim this month.
By: | August 4, 2017 • 4 min read

The integration of workers’ compensation with non-occupational disability and leave programs, although incrementally expanding, is taking a backseat to employer strategies for managing an ever-growing array of mandated leave benefits.

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Compliance efforts to avoid running afoul of federal enforcement efforts — which have increasingly leveled discrimination complaints against employers for, say, differences in their occupational and non-occupational return-to-work programs — are helping drive the current trend of integrated absence management.

Employee recruitment and retention strategies in the face of a tightening labor market are also fueling the current integrated absence management trend.

That trend, while often excluding workers’ comp, more typically encompasses integration of all other programs administering employee leaves, including those offered under short- and long-term disability plans.

In addition to helping administer hundreds of state and federal leave mandates, like the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers’ integration efforts help reduce violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Those are the conclusions of several observers attending the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s 2017 Annual Conference held July 31-Aug. 3, in Anaheim, California.

Sophisticated employers have not altogether stopped integrating workers’ comp with non-occupational disability and leave programs.

Terri Rhodes, CEO, Disability Management Employer Coalition

In fact, some workers’ comp third party administrators serving large employers are busy building services that will allow them to help clients integrate workers’ comp, non-occupational disability and leave programs, conference attendees said.

They are doing so as some potential clients are demanding requests for proposal that demonstrate the TPA’s ability to help integrate all of those moving parts.

Yet the integration of workers’ comp with non-occupational disability and leave offerings is occurring only incrementally, said a TPA representative who asked not to be identified because they did not have corporate permission to speak publicly.

Other DMEC conference participants agreed that only a limited number of employers continue to explore combining aspects of their workers’ comp with non-occupational disability and leave benefits in an integrated absence management strategy.

“I think there are still programs that are looking for that level of connection,” said Joanne Archer, national account executive at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Combining workers’ comp “is still a consideration when you are looking at integrated absence management.”

St. Joseph Health, for instance, is currently analyzing its absence management and workers’ comp programs to better understand the potential benefits from integrating, said Judie Tsanopoulos, director of workers’ comp and loss control for the Irvine, Calif.-based integrated health care system.

While doing that, St. Joseph will also evaluate how its other efforts, such as its workplace injury prevention and wellness programs, would play a role in an integration strategy.

“Because if we keep those siloed we are not really getting the full, comprehensive benefit of the approach,” Tsanopoulos said.

Expanding Benefit Portfolios

Overall, employers are giving greater attention to complying with mandated leave laws than to integrating aspects of their workers’ comp program. But mandates are not the only reason employers are integrating leave and disability plans.

Given a tight labor market, some employers are voluntarily bolstering leave offerings, providing paid parental leave, for example, to help recruit and retain valuable employees.

Discussions about paid parental leave previously focused on whether such a benefit was justified, said Abigail O’Connell, compliance consultant and counsel, group protection at Lincoln Financial Group. Now, however, those discussions have shifted to focus on how to provide it.

“There are a significant amount of companies that are putting in paid parental leave,” agreed Terri Rhodes, DMEC’s CEO. It’s a trend Rhodes has seen pick up during the past year.

Overall demand for services helping employers manage absences of all types are expanding, several conference attendees said.

Given a tight labor market, some employers are voluntarily bolstering leave offerings, providing paid parental leave, for example, to help recruit and retain valuable employees.

When Lincoln Financial rolled out an absence management program about four years ago it expected that mostly larger employers would demand the service, said Darla Roche, Lincoln Financial’s assistant VP of absence management.

But now more smaller employers, those with as few as 200 employees, are looking for those services, Roche said.

Employers are also looking to improve productivity while helping employees understand the full array of leave options.

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“With the more resurgent economy and the more taxed labor force, employers are really looking to add to their benefit portfolios for employees,” Archer said. “They are looking to also help employees … navigate through all of the complexities of varying leave laws, regulations and policies.”

An integrated absence management strategy that reduces corporate silos traditionally separating disparate departments managing non-occupational disability and various leaves can help meet those goals, several DMEC conference attendees said.

Integration can also prevent EEOC enforcement litigation by helping assure various disability programs — whether for occupational or non-occupational injuries and illnesses — are consistent across all corporate benefit offerings.

There has been “case after case,” involving the EECO investigating for disability discrimination when employers offer return-to-work programs that differ depending on whether illnesses or injuries are occupational or non-occupational, said Bryon Bass, senior VP, disability and absence practice & compliance at Sedgwick.

“If you have a return-to-work program on the occupational side, it should be similar on the non-occ side,” Bass said. “There should be similar or the same opportunities.”

Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

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