Advisers must address the costs of disability leave

Register now

Going on disability leave can put financial strains on both the employer and the employee. Should the employee go on this form of work absence, they are only granted a certain percentage of their overall pay during their time off depending on their employer.

For the employer, they could lose a critical asset for their business, which could affect the overall flow of business while that employee is absent. To prevent these financial loss risks, advisers need to offer their clients an action plan in the event a disability claim occurs. The aim should be to keep employees in the workplace in a comfortable and productive way.

The causes of disability
Approximately 90% of all disabilities are caused by illness rather than accidents, according to recent data provided by Unum. In that data, Unum provides its top disability claims in both short and long term, taken from a wide span of companies and industries across the U.S.

Short term disability:

  • Pregnancy: 28.2%
  • Injury (excluding back disorders): 11.3%
  • Joint disorders: 7.5%
  • Back disorders (excluding injuries): 6.7%
  • Digestive system: 6.5%

Long term disability:

  • Cancer: 16.4%
  • Back disorders (excluding injuries): 13.2%
  • Injury and poison (excluding back disorders): 11.6%
  • Joint disorders: 9.3%
  • Cardiovascular: 9.3%

Jackie Reinberg, national practice leader for absence, disability and life at Willis Towers Watson, says she is surprised to not see mental disabilities in Unum’s top five list.

“Depending on where you are on the spectrum of industries you wouldn’t see the numbers that Unum suggests here,” Reinberg says. “Irrespective of the diagnosis, Unum wants to be clear that there is intellectual capital and there is knowledge and skills that you can harness as an employer by helping individuals with a disability return to work timely and safely.”

Stay-at-work interventions

Sandy Witt, disability and productivity consultant for the Workplace Possibilities Program at The Standard, says there is a chance disability leave can be avoided by staging stay-at-work interventions with the employee.

These interventions consist of the employer, with the assistance of a disability consultant, sitting down with the disabled employee and working out an action plan to allow the employee to remain as a member of the workplace while still recovering from their disability, she says. For instance, if the employee performs manual labor, he or she could be re-assigned to a new role that is not physically taxing.

“We advise those employers to refer those employees to [The Standard] when they are beginning to struggle with their job duties, because they could be in a critical condition,” Witt says. “It is really important that the employer look for HR managers who are empowered and proactive to champion their employees when they start to notice troubles with the job.”

Also see:Employees look to employers for financial stability

Witt adds that HR managers need to be the first line of defense when handling a disability claim because they should have the opportunity to offer an assessment based on the responsibilities of the job to determine if a stay-at-work intervention can be initiated.

“The employer does not have to be concerned about what is a medical issue versus what is a performance issue,” Witt says. “They can have a disability professional deal with the medical issue and then the performance issue can be dealt with on the side, because it is often difficult for an employer to tell those apart.”

Pregnancy accommodation legalities
As Unum identifies in its short term disability list, pregnancy is the leading short-term disability claim among their clients in the U.S. Reinberg says when it comes to meeting accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace, specific legal requirement must be met by the employer to avoid discrimination under the ADA, EEOC and other disability laws and organizations.

“Years ago, employers would just tell expectant moms to file for disability and go sit, but you need to recognize that all disability plans are not created equal and they do not necessarily replace 100% of an employee’s income,” Reinberg says. “More and more women want to work up to the time they deliver because they want to have time to spend with their child.”

If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the employer or other covered entity must treat her in the same way as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee, according to The Pregnancy Discrimination Act within the EEOC.

The employer may have to provide light duty, alternative assignments, disability leave or unpaid leave to pregnant employees if it does so for other temporarily disabled employees.

Protecting the business
The burden of a disability could have major ramifications for an employer should the disabled employee play a major role in the functionality of the business. Michelle Jackson, assistant vice president of the Workforce Solutions Group at Unum, says having an in-depth knowledge of various disability claims should be an adviser and broker’s first priority when assisting a client.

“How can a broker ensure key roles are held and available when the individual comes back because under the Federal Medical Leave Act, you cannot terminate an employee just because they have a disability,” Jackson says. “That key role must be held open for that individual until they return, so it becomes a matter of how to bring back the person as quickly as possible.”

Jackson adds that there are always strategic actions on the front end that can be implemented such as training another employee to cover the responsibilities of the disabled employee while they are on leave.

“If an employer knows ahead of time that somebody is going to be out on disability leave for events such as surgery recovery, training can be initiated to cover the responsibilities,” Jackson says. “If the disability leave is unplanned, the number one thing an employer can do is to have stay-at-work or return-to-work programs in place which will facilitate the earliest possible safe return to work of an employee.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.