Return to Work Plans and the ADA

Return to Work Plans are usually created and used in conjunction with Worker’s Comp injuries and focus on getting a recovering employee back to work as soon as practical. But they can end up connected to ADA issues following serious injuries, which can cause problems for a business if the consequences aren’t thought through. The light-duty job that started as a way to help an employee through the healing process can become a long-term liability for the employer if it is considered an ongoing reasonable accommodation for a disability.

When someone returns after a serious injury, be aware that it might not get better and talk to them up front about the limitations of light duty and the Return to Work Plan. Talk to them about what they can and can’t do, and how you can make their work easier to accomplish, just as if they had a disability. Think about it as a long-term conversation, because it might be. According to the EEOC,

[An] employer’s reasonable accommodation-related obligations [under the ADA] begin as soon as the employer knows that an individual worker is having trouble at work because of a serious medical problem.

This means that as soon as a doctor notifies you that an employee can’t work, you should be thinking about ADA issues. Return to Work plans fit in nicely since

EEOC’s biggest concern … will be that someone with a disability is being forced to take leave even though he or she could do the essential functions of the job with a reasonable accommodation.

Be careful designing and describing light-duty jobs for Return to Work Plans. Consider the long-term effects; can this job be continued indefinitely? Is there a logical end point such as the end of a seasonal position? Is there is, specify it. If the job will work well as an ongoing disability accommodation, that is even better, but many light-duty positions are used to handle a project that has been languishing for lack of anyone to focus on it and they have a natural end.

Set boundaries even if there isn’t a logical ending point. A common choice is to review the situation every 90 days and extend the light-duty job as appropriate; this at least gives you some control and a chance to review how things are working – and continues the interactive process.

Luckily, all this fits in nicely with employer best practices: take care of your employees and communicate with them about what you have planned. Being aware of the long-term consequences of light-duty jobs under Return to Work Plans will make the conversations more productive and avoid nasty surprises on both sides.