WorkComp Advisory
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Common questions regarding alternate-duty work assignments

“How should the alternate-duty assignment be offered to the injured employee?”

An employer should put the offer of alternate-duty to the employee in writing. It must be for a position that has restricted duties that are within the employee’s work abilities as determined by the employee’s treating physician and described in a Work Status Report.

This written offer that would be signed by both employee and employer should include:

• The Work Status Report, outlining the restrictions under which the employee can work

• The location at which the employee will be working

• The schedule the employee will be working

• The wages the employee will be paid

• A description of the physical and time requirements that the position will entail

• A statement that the employer will only assign tasks consistent with the employee’s physical ability, knowledge and skills and will provide training, if necessary.

One primary goal of a return-to-work program is to keep the employee connected to the workplace. In addition to clearly defining the expectations, this process is a way to reinforce the employee’s value to the organization.
“How long should an alternate-duty assignment last?”
Alternate work assignments are transitional - designed to help the injured worker return to his or her original job as soon as possible. In some cases this may only be a few days, whereas others may be as much as 90 days.

There are standards regarding disability duration as noted in the article above. The expected duration of the alternate assignment should be communicated and understood by all parties – the injured employee, the treating physician and the employer – prior to beginning the assignment. Some modifications to the schedule may be needed, however, clearly defining the expectations at the beginning of the process sets goals and establishes a framework for the employee.

In some cases, inexpensive accommodations can be effective in helping the employee fully recover. According to the Job Accommodation Network, 70% of accommodations cost less than $500 and 20% cost nothing at all.

If the process takes longer than expected, you’ll want to determine why. It could be that the treatment has not been adequate, that the injury was not fully diagnosed, or that the employee likes the alternate-duty job and wants to stay in it as long as possible.

Benchmarks give you the measure by which to evaluate the progress of the employee’s recovery.

“How should the alternate-duty assignment be monitored?”

At the time an alternate-duty assignment is made, the employer should meet with the employee and supervisor to be sure both clearly understand the work limitations and abilities of the employee. The focus should be on both the work restrictions and abilities of the injured employee – what the employee can and cannot do must be clear to both parties.

Diary your file weekly from the date of injury to review the employee’s status. After each medical visit, follow up with the treating physician to determine if the employee is making progress and if he or she can take on additional responsibilities. The goal is to gradually increase the employee’s duties until he or she is able to return the original job.

Continue to get feedback from the employee and the supervisor on “how things are going.” The employee and supervisor must have an open line of communication, so that any issues can be dealt with right away. Employees need to realize that employers care about their full recovery and that they are expected to show progress to remain in the alternate-duty assignment.

Successfully administering alternate-duty assignments involves a process and, therefore, the commitment of time and staff from the employer. Yet the benefits of cutting Workers’ Compensation expenses and the costs associated with replacing workers far outweigh the costs of administration. Furthermore, the employees themselves benefit from improved morale and self-esteem, faster recovery, wage continuation and fewer re-injuries. The results of a well-executed return-to-work program are lower costs, improved morale and increased productivity – all contributing to an improved bottom line.