Blurring the lines between accommodations

April 30, 2021

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As employers reimagine their return to work programs and strategies, they often wonder about the difference between traditional return to work programs and accommodations afforded under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At RIMS LIVE 2021, we answered common questions on the topic. Read on to learn more.


What is an ADA accommodation?

Individuals who cannot perform a job due to an impairment are offered an accommodation that allows them to complete the essential functions of the job. Generally speaking, there are three types of accommodations:

  • An accommodation within the job
  • An accommodation with a leave of absence
  • An accommodation based on job reassignment

What is a traditional return to work program?

A traditional return to work program is a formal plan that helps employees return to work as soon as possible after an injury or illness. These programs typically focus on transitional, light or modified duty job assignments. The structure of transitional duty, for instance, can vary. One size does not fit all; rather, these options should be tailored to each organization. If successful, these programs can sometimes eliminate the need for an ADA accommodation.


What’s the difference between a traditional return to work program vs. an ADA accommodation?

An important distinguishing factor when it comes to return to work programs is that they are intended to serve as temporary solutions, designed to run for a for a specified time. An ADA accommodation on the other hand does not have a set end date and is often more individualized.

A common component of return to work programs relates to compensation. Most programs pay the injured employee at the same rate during this period as they were earning beforehand. This practice simplifies administration and can also contribute to employee morale and productivity. If at the end of the specified period, the employee is not able to return to work full time, the ADA will kick in. At that point, an individualized assessment is conducted and an interactive dialogue should be held between the employer and employee to determine next steps.


What are the benefits of a traditional return to work program?

One of the most significant benefits of a return to work program is an increase in productivity. Return to work programs can also result in cost reductions, as an employer avoids onboarding or training costs that would otherwise be associated with hiring a new employee. These programs can also create higher levels of employee engagement, increase workplace morale and promote faster recovery. If the employee continues working, their workload doesn’t need to be shared, which would have been the case had the employee been on leave. As a result, this program has a positive impact on both the injured worker and their team.

study released by the Disability Management Employers Coalition (DMEC) in 2020 echoes these sentiments. The study found that 60% of employees say if they could access a robust return to work program, it would increase their likelihood of staying with their employer. Thus, the study reaffirmed that employees themselves recognize the benefits of return to work.


What have we recently learned about traditional return to work programs and accommodations?

While ADA accommodations and return to work programs are separate, they have converged noticeably in recent years. In 2019, for the first time in the ADA’s 30-year history, disability was alleged more often in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges than any other type of discrimination. From this, we can discern employees are becoming more aware of their rights under ADA. When employers have a consistent approach to the ADA and return to work policies, they can minimize this type of legal exposure.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the importance of these programs and practices. According to the 2020 DMEC survey , 68% of respondents noted an increase in accommodation requests in 2020 versus 2019. Moreover, the number one request was remote work or work from home arrangements.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers claimed that letting people work from home would create an undue burden. However, the pandemic forced many employers to reevaluate this policy and many found success. As a result, it will be harder for employers to claim undue burden, logistical complications or the absence of collaboration. Attitudes have changed and it is not as easy to dismiss this type of accommodation request when made. Employers must look at requests for remote work accommodations more open-mindedly as this trend is expected to continue.


What do organizations need to deploy a successful return to work program?

In order to succeed, a return to work program needs support from senior management. This traditionally isn’t challenging, as increasing productivity and decreasing costs are top business priorities. Return to work programs already align well with overarching goals. Once management buy-in is achieved, the program’s purpose and design can be communicated throughout the organization.

It is also helpful for employers to implement a single system of record that documents and time-stamps every single interaction with employees. This helps document programs, accommodations and the steps taken in the interactive process. Should a defensible case ever make its way to court, the documentation created within such a system makes it easier to prove that administrative processes and procedures were followed consistently and appropriately.

Here to help

As employers weigh the merits of their existing return-to-work and accommodation programs, they can be assured Sedgwick is here to help every step of the way. The employee is at the heart of everything we do, and there is value in taking a holistic approach when addressing workers’ compensation and workforce absence matters. We will continue to provide guidance to our clients as they work through industry challenges and look for ways to improve their claims management, productivity and employees’ experience. You can always reach out to us for further support or learn more at

Tags: Accommodation, ADA, disabilities, Employees, employers, Return to work, Workforce