At a minimum, short-term disability coverage is a valuable financial stopgap for employees who have been temporarily sidelined by an illness or injury. But industry trends for 2016 show that the expanded features of such a plan, including employee assistance features and a focus on returning to work, are what drive customers to the top carriers in the country.

As voluntary benefit sales continue to trend upward, short-term disability products comprise a piece of that growth, with sales increasing 25% year-over-year from the third quarter of 2014 to the comparable period in 2015, says Phil Bruen, vice-president of disability growth strategies at MetLife.

Bloomberg/file photo

Also see:26 benefit issues to pay attention to in 2016.”

Most employees are back on the job within 90 to 180 days after a short-term disability leave, and as many as 95% who file short-term claims return to work, Bruen says. Armed with that information, employers who offer a short-term disability benefit are now focusing on additional plan features, including support for early intervention, return-to-work programs and ADA compliance.

“Those are what you look for in a short-term disability plan today, and designing one that’s going to complement an employee benefit strategy,” Bruen says. “We make it easy for the employee to submit the claim, usually telephonically, and check its status via a mobile app.”

Popular options

Other options that are increasingly important to employees include the ability to decide when benefits begin, allowing those with accumulated paid time off to use their accrued leave before beginning a disability benefit. Short-term disability coverage may also be coordinated with additional benefits such as leave management, FMLA, or — even more commonly, Bruen says — long-term disability.

“For new plans, larger corporations will cover an employee’s salary to dovetail into a long-term plan,” Bruen says.

Employers also increasingly prefer short-term disability plans that are portable as well as flexible, allowing employees to choose different benefit amounts and elimination periods for specific needs, and to take their coverages with them when they leave a job. Disability plans with automatic enrollment options also offer potential financial savings, Bruen says.

“By providing an automatic enrollment option, the premium is a little bit better because the carrier is going to assume that they retain a higher level of participation in the plan,” Bruen says.

A lot of things go on in an employee’s life when they’re on disability.

Employee assistance benefits that are added to voluntary packages also help drive plan participation, says Kathy Plummer, director of disability product development for Unum. On-call counseling for credit, financial, legal, or behavioral issues provides added value to other benefit products, particularly when an employee may be on a disability leave.

“You can call these services numerous amounts of times for financial things or personal things to get help,” Plummer said. “A lot of things go on in an employee’s life when they’re on disability.”

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