Return to Work Policies Make Cents

The hazards encountered on a daily basis by those working in restaurants often lead to injuries, the restrictions from which are inherently difficult to accommodate.  From a dull knife in the kitchen you can start bleeding money and from the hot oil in the fryer, get badly burned by the workers’ compensation system.  Despite the best training and safety equipment you may provide, accidents happen. Carrying workers’ compensation coverage is not only legally required, but also the best way to reduce the financial risk. However, relying on your carrier is not enough.  To keep your claim costs low and your premiums reasonable, a carefully tailored, well-executed return to work (RTW) policy is critical.

To run an RTW program, you need to craft one particular to the nature of your business and to your company itself.  There are core steps to guide you in the creation and implementation of a successful program:

Step 1: Implement a written RTW policy that is applied evenly

Step 2: Decide what job to offer

Step 3: Ensure clear knowledge of the employee’s limitations

Step 4: Send a light duty job offer letter via proper means

Step 5: Manage the first day back with care

Step 6: Know what you can/cannot say 

Step 7: Manage co-workers and their reactions

Step 8: Monitor the actual work of the injured employee on light duty

Step 9: Accommodate medical appointments without getting taken advantage of

Step 10: Respond to complaints of the injured worker

Step 11: Decide how to pay the employee on light duty

Step 12: Report earnings to WC Carrier

Restrictions often seen in the restaurant industry can make RTW more complicated, but it is rarely impossible. If the treating physician says your employee can RTW in some capacity, find a way for her or him to do so using these helpful tips.

Step 1

Implement a written RTW policy that is applied evenly: the program, as crafted, should apply to all employees equally and be administered by one individual or team to monitor and ensure even-handed application. For example, if your front of the house team is offered light duty, the back of the house team must be as well.

Step 2

Decide what job to offer: you need not place the employee back in their prior role, as is often impossible.  For example, if a line cook sustains a burn, avoidance of heat is a common restriction. Look to a job far from the heat of grills or ovens, perhaps preparing salad or cutting vegetables.  Wait staff can often serve as a host, roll silverware, or wipe down menus.  

Step 3

Ensure clear knowledge of the employee’s limitations: the injured worker should bring forms to you with the doctor’s restrictions; but, if not received, the insurance adjuster can provide you copies.  Lifting restrictions are the most common, but with knife cuts there is often a need for keeping the wound dry; rubber gloves can accomplish that without changing the job at all.  Consider restrictions carefully and think outside the box to find the best way to keep your employee in the restaurant.

Step 4

Send a light duty job offer letter via proper means: the law on this point is clear – you must notify the injured worker of the light duty, in writing, and via trackable means.  A phone call telling the chef to return will not suffice.  The letter need not state the job you’re offering, the shifts, or the pay, just that you have a position within the restrictions, and to whom the employee should report and when.  If the job is refused, notify the adjuster immediately.

Step 5

Manage the first day back with care: once the employee reports to work, set forth the details of the assignment and your expectations. Ensure the tasks are within the most recent restrictions, give the information about the new role, the shifts, and the pay.  With front of the house employees earning tips, the light duty may be hourly pay and this needs to be conveyed to avoid misunderstandings.  

Step 6

Know what you can/cannot say: keeping the peace is critical and that begins with management.  It is incumbent upon supervisors to be role models.  Ask the employee how she/he is feeling or if she/he needs help to let you know.  Do not accuse or imply someone of faking an injury or exaggerating pain, and do not broach the topic of lawyers, lawsuits or litigation. 

broken arm

Step 7

Manage co-workers and their reactions:  The aforementioned role models must not only lead by example, but must play referee.  Do not allow co-workers to lob accusations such as those mentioned above or gossip. Temper jealousy with comments like: “if you got hurt, wouldn’t you want us to help you too?”  If co-workers are heard talking about money the injured worker is supposedly getting through the case, end that conversation immediately as these claims are contagious; the last thing you want is four more line cooks alleging back injuries from also lifting boxes of hamburgers.  

Step 8

Monitor the actual work of the injured employee on light duty: one who is working with pain is more prone to re-injure or exacerbate her/his condition.  Embarrassment, bravado, and thoughtlessness often leads the worker on light duty to not ask for help and instead, act outside the restrictions, for example bending down to pick up the utensils they dropped. If bending is a restriction, doing so can increase pain and lead to tighter restrictions or a no work status, which can and does increase the claim costs.  Management must watch to ensure the job is being done right as well as being done. Texting in the corner instead of napkin rolling must be monitored and disallowed as well. 

Step 9

Accommodate medical appointments without getting taken advantage of: inevitably, some workers will try to take advantage. You must allow your workers to go to their appointments; however, in this industry, work schedules usually do not match the standard workday of a doctor.  Thus, encourage your employees to make their P.T. and other appointments before the lunch shift begins or schedule around their appointments.

Step 10

Respond to complaints of the injured worker: “My back hurts, I need to go home.” “If your back hurts, you need to go to the doctor, because the job is within your restrictions.” “This is work I am not allowed to do.” “Let’s go over your most recent restrictions to ensure your safety.” The key is not to give in and not allow the employee to take advantage of the kindness of her/his employer.

Step 11

Decide how to pay the employee on light duty: you need not compensate at the same rate as prior to the accident and with tipped workers, it is often impossible.  The goal, to have the best financial outcome in your claim, is to offer work that allows the employee to earn 80% of that which was being earned pre-injury. You’ll need to update the insurance adjuster on the RTW and she/he can assist in these calculations. 

Step 12

Report earnings to your Workers’ Compensation Carrier: despite your best efforts, there are circumstances under which the employee will still be entitled to some compensation from the insurance carrier; it is incumbent upon you to ensure the adjuster has the weekly earnings to ensure benefits are properly and timely administered.

The benefits of a well-run return to work program are multi-faceted.  Getting the worker back inside the restaurant lessens the amount of money being paid out by the carrier and thus your immediate claim costs and future insurance rates.  Allowing the employee to sit at home leads to otherwise avoidable litigation. The lawyer ads playing on TV during the day are enticing.  Hearing the local firm got $1M for another injured worker leads your employee to see dollar signs flashing in neon lights.  It also fosters wallowing and pain-focused behavior which is detrimental to psychological health and makes it harder to convince someone she/he is capable of working.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for many to work while taking medications. As such, the RTW lessens the amount of medication used and lowers the risk of opioid addiction.  Bringing your cook back makes it impossible for her/his attorney to argue she/he is too injured to work or proves to your server she/he can do it if they try. Lastly, do not abandon your employee. Show you care by doing what you can to ensure she/he still has income to pay the rent and feed the family.

It may not be an easy task, to bring back an injured worker, but the financial benefits can be significant and, as noted, it goes well-beyond the money; it is beneficial to the physical and mental health of your employee too, and that is a win/win.