DMEC Conference

Demographics, Regulations Pose Challenge for Absence Management

Attendees of the 2015 DMEC Annual Conference reviewed both obstacles and progress in absence management.
By: | August 11, 2015

2015 DMEC panel discussion on Amazon’s leave policy. Photo courtesy of DMEC.

Discussions at last week’s meeting of the Disability Management Employer Coalition in San Francisco focused on the impact of shifting workforce demographics amid current challenges and potential innovative solutions to disability management.

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With people continuing to work later in life, four different generations now make up the American workforce, and each has different priorities when it comes to employer benefits and how they are delivered.

This, combined with changes in the regulatory and health care landscape, presents unique challenges for employers and absence management providers. Below are some of the major themes discussed at the annual conference:

Regulatory Challenges

The pace of regulatory change remains a constant hurdle for employers. Absences in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act, in particular, have left employers vulnerable to compliance risk.

Prior to June’s Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, employers had to cope with a definition of “spouse” that fluctuated among the growing number of states that had legalized gay marriage.

Initially, couples that lived in states where same-sex marriages were recognized were viewed as spouses under FMLA. Now, there are no location restrictions on the definition of “spouse.”

That is just one example of how quickly regulations can change, challenging employers to keep their policies up-to-date and ensure there is no infringement of employees’ rights.

Employers also consistently struggle with FMLA compliance by miscategorizing leave under regular sick time, or by punishing employees for FMLA-protected absence by discontinuing health insurance coverage or failing to restore him or her to their former position when the leave ends. Some simply fail to educate employees about their rights under the FMLA.

Federal investigations are also intensifying, with the Department of Labor increasingly requesting information on leave use and conducting more on-site visits, according to Jeff Nowak, a partner at Franczek Radelet, PC, and author of the blog “FMLA Insights.”

Companies can strengthen FMLA compliance and reduce their exposure by conducting more self-audits of their policies and implementing internal protocols to make sure requests for leave are properly designated.

While the Department of Labor is working on an FMLA guide for employers, companies can strengthen compliance and reduce their exposure by conducting more self-audits of their FMLA policies and implementing internal protocols to make sure requests for leave are properly designated.

One upcoming regulatory changes to watch is an update to the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act and Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act.

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New legislation is also pending concerning accommodations for pregnant workers, following clashes between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several companies over the treatment of pregnancy and related conditions as disabilities.

Managing Chronic Conditions

Addressing chronic conditions was a topic touched upon in several sessions. Studies from Liberty Mutual’s Research Institute for Safety show that chronic conditions affect 40 percent of the U.S. workforce.

An aging workforce and high rates of obesity and diabetes will only make chronic conditions more prevalent.

Chronic conditions pose problems because few surefire methods have emerged to manage them. Pre-placement exams can’t predict how a condition will develop over time, and the provision of wellness programs and behavioral therapy has shown no real impact in decreasing absence related to chronic conditions.

Sutter Health was able to cut lost days down by 8,632 in one year using a system that integrated leave management and return-to-work accommodations. The estimated savings impact was $2.75 million.

Training supervisors to facilitate return-to-work and oversee ergonomics improvements was one method that did make a material difference in decreasing lost time days due to chronic issues.

Research from Liberty Mutual showed that a supervisor training program resulted in a 27 percent decrease in lost time.

Providing on-site peer support to arrange care and accommodations for minor complaints also led to a 25 percent decrease in lost time.

Several speakers advocated seeking out methods of care that would address a worker’s injury or condition within the scope of their work environment.

Overall, hastening employees’ return-to-work by focusing more on “whole person care” emerged as a big shift for employers.

Zoning in on a specific injury without considering a worker as a whole ignores the unique interactions between the worker’s personal and occupational health risks, and his or her relationship with the workplace in general.

PG&E presented results from a new health plan built around the concept of treating the whole person, and found that focusing on preventive and primary care over specialty care reduced the number of ER visits and lost work days — saving about $1,918 in medical costs per employee in 2014.

Integrated Disability and Absence Management

While integrating disability and absence management, health and safety initiatives, and return-to-work programs remains a hot topic, most experts concede that widespread integration of those programs remains far off.

The complexity of the different pieces — FMLA, the Americans with Disabilities Act and workers’ comp — make coordination difficult.

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Those who succeed at streamlining these resources, though, stand to significantly reduce absences and reap savings.

Sutter Health, a nonprofit health system in Northern California, for example, was able to cut lost days down by 8,632 in one year using a system that integrated leave management and return-to-work accommodations. Over the course of that year, the savings impact was estimated at $2.75 million.

Future DMEC conferences will surely feature more employer success stories and pave the way for best practices for marshaling the data, resources and executive support to create integrated programs.

Katie Dwyer is a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]