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What’s ahead in 2018? Increased opportunities for collaboration

Human resources and benefit managers will have excellent opportunities to demonstrate their expertise in 2018. The complexity of issues they address on a daily basis continues to grow and evolve. Federal, state, county and city laws that govern employment issues are constantly changing.

Organizational structures can further compound these multi-layered regulatory complexities. Departmental silos with their own internal policies and procedures can make it difficult to implement consistent programs that adhere to internal standards and comply with statutory regulations.

To better meet these obligations and program requirements in the year ahead, more employers are likely to tear down departmental walls in favor of a more collaborative work environment. This is where HR and benefit professionals can make a big impact.

The intersection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and workers' compensation provides an ideal illustration of how HR and benefit managers can work with risk managers to create more effective and efficient programs for both employees and the organization.

Employment laws related to leave of absence and accommodations also apply to workers' compensation claims. It is critical for organizations to understand the nuances of federal laws like the ADA and FMLA. However, the departmental structure of many organizations isolates human resources and benefits from risk management; occupational and non-occupational injuries are treated very differently.

For example, an employee that broke his ankle by slipping off a ladder in the warehouse may have a very different experience if he broke his ankle in a Saturday afternoon neighborhood softball game. For the work-related injury, he may be treated by an occupational specialist near the plant, while he might visit the emergency room or see his primary care physician for the softball injury. The employee also would have to determine who to notify at work to report his condition: the HR department or the risk management department. He would communicate with different people at the organization in filing the claim and would complete different paperwork. Because return to work programs are not often the same for those injured on the job vs. outside of work, finding a job for him at the warehouse while his ankle was healing also could vary.

The need employers must address is to create and implement a consistent leave of absence approach across the board, regardless of what caused the injury or where it happened. Further, reasonable accommodation must be provided on a consistent basis whether conditions and injuries are occupational or non-occupational. This is where the interactive process comes into play.

ADA requirements and the interactive process will remain a hot topic into 2018. The interactive process is recommended to help an employer determine if an employee has a disability and whether reasonable accommodations can be made for the disabling condition.

The interactive process is triggered when an organization becomes aware of an employee's disability and that person has requested an accommodation or displays a need. Also, a company is obligated to initiate the interactive process when an employee has exhausted leave for work-related and non-work-related conditions alike.

Frequently, the employee, supervisor and HR or benefit representative will have a discussion about the condition and potential options for accommodation. Including healthcare providers in this discussion is advised to exchange information related to the impairment, potential restrictions or limitations and guidance as to whether an accommodation likely will be successful.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor, identified six steps an organization should consider when initiating the interactive process. Anyone handling occupational and non-occupational injuries and illness should consider them, regardless of departmental boundaries. Any disabling condition is subject to reasonable accommodation rules under the ADA.

The six steps JAN recommends are1:

  1. Recognize an accommodation request or a duty to start the interactive process.
  2. Gather information needed to assess the employee's situation, such as impairment or restrictions and a job description that outlines the tasks the employee performs.
  3. Explore what accommodations might be available to the employee and identify what environmental modifications could be made.
  4. Choose the accommodation and, when possible, ask the employee which is preferred.
  5. Implement the accommodation and offer assistance throughout the process as needed.
  6. Monitor the accommodation to ensure it is working as intended.

Because of the technical knowledge, communication skills and professional experience needed to be a successful HR or benefit professional, the future is bright in 2018. Opportunity lies in taking the lead in collaborative efforts and developing innovative solutions that will benefit employees and the organization.

Bryon Bass, SVP, Disability and Absence Practice & Compliance

> This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Human Resource Executive magazine. > Looking for more information on ADA compliance, return to work and opportunities for collaboration? Register to join our complimentary webinar "Don't forget the ADA! How to build a premier return to work program" on Wednesday, December 13 at 2 PM EST.

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