5 Absence and Disability Trends that Will Shape Workplaces in 2020

By: | February 18, 2020

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 highlight the absence management trends I see shaping the workplace.

The 2020 trends are similar to those we saw in 2019. Legislative changes are still being driven at the state and local level, where there’s growing recognition that employers need to accommodate the desire for more work-life balance.

The exception to the state action is, of course, the recent extension of paid family leave to federal employees, which takes effect later this year.

Here are the trends we’ll continue to see in 2020.

1) ADA Compliance

Employers have spent years developing processes and procedures to comply with the ADA, especially its requirement of an “interactive process” with employees.

Employers are coming to understand another critical compliance component: essential job functions (EJF). Without identifying EJF, it is difficult to determine if an employee is qualified for ADA protection. And with EJF, there needs to be objective standards for and measurements of those functions.

A good place to start is clear and accurate job descriptions.

The most important component, from an ADA perspective, is documentation of EJF. For example, being able to lift 15 pounds overhead 10 times per day; assembling 1,000 items per day; using a keyboard to type reports; required attendance for patient care; mental acuity (concentration, memory, focus), etc. The key to a great job description is to be specific.

This is where a related trend called “assessment science” comes in.

If an EJF is the ability to lift 15 pounds, employers need to know if an employee can actually do that. There are a growing number of vendors that offer systems enabling employers to assess an employee’s essential function performance.

Interest in learning more about such assessments, as well as the importance of job descriptions, is the reason we are dedicating several sessions to discuss them at the 2020 DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference.

2) Technology

The march of artificial intelligence (AI), automation and mobility shows no signs of slowing in 2020. Employers are increasingly using AI and automation to enhance both regulatory compliance and efficiency.

In terms of compliance, employers will continue to use AI and automation to develop and employ better processes and implement policy consistency.

Consistent, evenly enforced policies with complete documentation go a long way towards demonstrating intent to comply with the ADA, the FMLA and other laws.

Of course, efforts to regularize and automate compliance also increase efficiency and productivity.

Along those lines, another growing trend is enhancing ways to make employee “self-serve” programs truly “self-serve.” Many employers still have call centers to help employees with self-enrollment and related tasks. This undermines the entire purpose — and potential cost savings — of having employees do it themselves.

In 2020, we’ll continue to see employers adapt the “self-serve” concept to the way employees increasingly do anything — through their smartphone. This should help increase the number of employees who can self-enroll and conduct other HR administrative tasks without assistance and its associated costs.

3) Mental Health

In 2020, technology will also increasingly impact mental health — an important employer focus.

While employers have made strides in acknowledging workplace stigma attached to mental health, there is still much work to be done to reduce it and improve it. But even the most committed employers can only do so much. Sometimes individual employees cannot get past their own feelings and as a result don’t reach out to an employee assistance program or other resources for help.

That’s where technology — again, smartphones — comes in.

Increasing numbers of employers are offering employees phone apps to directly access mental health services.

While younger employees tend to attach lower stigma to discussing mental health, they still benefit from accessing care through video chat and other phone-based interactions they’re familiar with. We’ll need more time to see if these technological innovations increase mental health care utilization, but the hope is that they’re a step in the right direction.

4) Marijuana

Cannabis continues to be legalized and/or decriminalized across the United States, and marijuana-related employee work protections are falling into place. Some examples:

  • As of January 1, Illinois residents can now purchase marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
  • Last year, New Mexico and Oklahoma each passed legislation that prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee because of their status as a registered medical marijuana user.
  • In Nevada, a new law took effect on Jan. 1 that prevents employers from failing or refusing to hire an applicant because the applicant tests positive for marijuana.
  • Perhaps not surprisingly, New York City went one step further when it passed Int. 1445-A, barring most employers from conducting any pre-employment testing for marijuana or THC. The ordinance provides several exceptions to allow drug testing of applicants for safety-related positions, transport-related positions, caregivers and certain federal contractors.
  • Similarly, New Jersey now prohibits employers from disciplining or terminating an employee solely based on that individual’s status as a registered medical marijuana user.

Given this changing state and local landscape, combined with federal criminalization and the ambiguity of disability laws, employers have been in something of a holding pattern.

That could change in 2020.

There’s indication that we could see the introduction of a test this year that will determine marijuana impairment similar to that of an alcohol breathalyzer. This would go a long way towards bringing clarity to both safety and compliance.

5) Caregiving

In 2019, the federal government may have changed the game by granting paid parental leave to its employees. Whatever the long-term impact is, caring for sick or disabled family, elderly parents and others will continue to loom large for employees, employers and policymakers.

For example, there’s been heightened media attention to a reality few realize — the FMLA and other family leave laws do not cover bereavement.

How much time someone can take off from work to grieve is determined by an employer’s particular policy. The average is three to five days of leave. Employees are eligible for up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a sick family member — but only three to five days away from work if the person they are caring for passes away. Many employees and others see a glaring gap when it comes to bereavement.

With the aging of the workforce, the topic of caregiving and parental and family policies and what they cover will only become more intense in 2020. It will also be a focus at the 2020 DMEC Annual Conference, where we will be devoting a full day pre-conference workshop to the topic of Caregivers in the Workplace.

Views about work and the rest of life — and employer responsibilities to help employees keep them in balance — continue to evolve.

This in turn places greater responsibility on HR and risk management professionals.

With that responsibility comes expanded opportunity for career growth and innovation. 2020 will be another great year for both. &

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