DMEC at 30: How This Female-Led Organization Changed the Disability Management Landscape

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Disability Management Employer Coalition.
By: | July 21, 2022

Several decades ago, employers had yet to explore the benefits of having dedicated representatives to manage and mitigate workplace absenteeism and associated disabilities. If conversations concerned support for workers with disabilities, they centered on the financial compensation eligible employees could receive through their employers.

That equation changed with the formation of the Disability Management Employer Coalition back in 1992.

Since then, DMEC has been an integral part of a transition towards emphasizing absence and disability management.

There is also a diversity and inclusion angle here: The organization was founded by women, and women still run it.

Their collective efforts have been so successful that most large public and private organizations now have absence and disability management experts on staff. Many smaller workplaces have followed suit. Retail giants like Amazon and Walmart are among the current DMEC members.

Legal Progress Spotlighted the Need for an Absence and Disability Focus

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990 and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) came into force three years later, employers began viewing workplace absences differently than they had before. It became necessary to understand the legal compliance requirements and associated liability risks for companies that did not abide by the new legislation.

Terri Rhodes, chief executive officer, Disability Management Employer Coalition

There has been a much more recent shift in how employers perceive absence, too.

Employers formerly saw absence and disability management as a cost to balance, and often did so with systematic approaches.

Now, employers realize it’s a competitive advantage if they offer more than the mandated amounts of applicable state and local workplace leave. They know workplace leave considerations could prove valuable in attracting new employees and retaining existing ones.

Many absence and disability management professionals now use a multipronged approach to support workers with injuries, illnesses or other issues that may keep them away from the workplace. That approach includes aspects like workplace accommodations, employee assistance programs and health advocacy initiatives.

Before absence and disability management became a career option, many employers assumed if a worker got hurt, the only option was for them to take a leave from their job until they healed enough to return safely.

Now, thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like DMEC and others, they realize there are other possibilities to explore.

Depending on the type and extent of the injury, accommodations might involve giving the worker a more supportive chair. Alternatively, the worker may get a schedule adjustment so they have time to attend physical therapy sessions.

Absence and Disability Management Professionals Demonstrate Many Skills

Designing and managing competitive leave programs at workplaces is only one part of what’s now a significantly expanded role for absence and disability management professionals. They work with others in legal, IT and other departments to ensure everyone complies with leave laws. These professionals may also oversee bidding processes when securing third-party contractors to assist with developing employee programs.

People working in absence and disability management roles may also apply for grants that help employees stay in their positions after injuries or illnesses. There are millions of dollars of grant money available to eligible parties. Most are available to nonprofit organizations and require going through a specific process for consideration. However, the U.S. Department of Labor offers the Retaining Employment and Talent After Injury/Illness Network (RETAIN) grant.

Karen English, partner, Spring Consulting Group

Government officials anticipated awarding eight grants to recipients who use the money for demonstration projects. Eligible applicants are state-based labor organizations or other entities tasked with duties related to employment and workforce development.

Absence and disability management professionals must also manage the challenges of ever-evolving factors that could affect their work.

Terri L. Rhodes, the CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, recently wrote about several trends she believes will shape the absence management landscape in 2022. They included long COVID-19 and the continuing legalization of recreational marijuana. These emerging issues necessitate making continuing education available to people in the industry.

DMEC itself offers some such opportunities. In March of 2022, the organization held a conference to help employers navigate the intricacies of the ADA and FMLA. The scheduled events covered topics ranging from intermittent leave to managing compliance when faced with staffing challenges.

Tracking Industry Changes

DMEC members get the advantage of ongoing updates that could help them plan for the future and do their current work better. For example, the organization publishes an annual white paper about employer leave management. The latest edition covered 80 questions within a 45-page document featuring input from more than 700 employers.

Karen English, senior vice president of Spring Consulting, an Alera Group company, discussed the white paper’s conclusions with Rhodes when the pair recorded a podcast episode about the takeaways. She highlighted the tremendous changes that have occurred since the first edition of the document got published 11 years ago.

“Employer awareness and sophistication has gone from zero to 100 in the last 11 years”, said English.

She explained that, in the early stages, many employers didn’t know whether certain leave types applied to them. Things have changed so much now that they’re proactively managing their leave obligations. English also said that absence and disability management has gone from being somewhat of a misunderstood area to a specialized career.

Leave management software was another topic that came up in this year’s white paper. Compared to 2020’s numbers, a higher number of workplaces with fewer than 1,000 employees use manual methods to track employee leave. However, besides being time-consuming, that option is prone to errors. There may be a shift towards digital processes soon, though. Data from the white paper indicates that 20% of people currently using manual methods to record leave are thinking about switching to technology.

Rhodes anticipates more changes for the foreseeable future, too. “I expect the complexity of absence management — including an expanding number of state and local paid leave laws — to continue to grow. Additionally, employee health and well-being is becoming an increasingly important priority for employers,” she said.

Advice for Leaders Thinking About Starting an Absence and Disability Management Program

Launching an absence and disability management program is not something even the most dedicated company leaders can do in a few weeks or months. But, the payoffs for remaining focused and dedicated to creating one can be substantial.

English recommends taking a methodical approach. “Start by setting an overall strategy for absence and productivity at your organization, then take a phased approach to implementation,” she suggested. “Take the time to identify the types of absence you want to include, assess whether an insourced, outsourced or co-sourced methodology is best, and determine the roles and responsibilities of your internal teams.”

Rhodes recognizes the importance of education and networking while setting up a program. “Invest in education and networking — such as through a DMEC membership — that will provide strategic best practices, an opportunity to network with individuals who have been in your shoes and experts that can support your process,” she advised.

Understanding the expected results of successfully implementing a program can also help people stay motivated. “Well-executed programs can…save companies money — some estimate millions — by ensuring that absences are managed effectively, and employees return to work when it is safe to do so,” Rhodes clarified.

English also reminded people that it doesn’t necessarily take long to see results, saying, “The advantages of an absence and disability management strategy are an improved employee experience and ease of administration for the employer. These can be evident quickly as programs implemented correctly provide clarity about what employees, managers, HR and leadership are supposed to do and reduce confusion by all parties.”

DMEC’s Work Will Undoubtedly Remain Necessary

As the aspects above show, numerous factors still influence how employers handle employee leave and disability while remaining compliant with applicable laws.

DMEC can help organizations navigate current challenges and whatever’s on the horizon. Members get access to webinars, certifications, a vendor resource directory and much more.

The organization will also continue to help leaders understand the importance of absence and disability management, even if they don’t have internal specialists yet. It’s exciting to see how much has changed in the three decades since DMEC’s founding. We can expect more growth in coming years. &

Shannon L. Flynn is a business tech and cybersecurity writer based in Philadelphia, Penn. She can be reached at [email protected].

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