When a Worker Is Injured
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 31, 1996 Workplace injuries cost the federal government $1.8 billion annually. DoD's portion of the bill: $603 million -- and falling.
The Defense Civilian Personnel Management Service leads the effort to cut the injury compensation bill. A sure-fire way to lower costs, Patt Scanlon said Injury and Unemployment Compensation Division Chief, is to rehabilate and rehire injured workers as quickly as possible.
Centralized oversight, closer coordination with the Department of Labor, which administers federal injury compensation, and hands-on assistance to employers and claimants enabled DoD to reduce its annual bill by $2 million in fiscal 1995. Yet despite these efforts, Scanlon said, the ins and outs of injury compensation befuddle many in DoD.
She said a new civilian employee manual due this summer will delineate DoD's policies regarding injury compensation -- but it won't change what should happen after an employee is injured.
"When someone's injured on the job, he and the supervisor should complete a Department of Labor Form CA-1 for traumatic injury," Scanlon said. "This form describes and verifies the accident. The supervisor should also obtain witness statements, then make a decision whether to support the claim."
The installation civilian personnel office next sends the claim to the Labor Department, where it is assigned a case number and given to an examiner to adjudicate. If the Labor Department accepts the claim, Scanlon said, the checks start flowing. Injured federal workers receive 66.66 percent of their current wage or 75 percent if they have dependents. Compensation is tax free.
This doesn't mean the Labor Department's footing the bill, however. The department each year charges back to users such as DoD. DoD, in turn, bills back to each component. As a result, Scanlon said, the services pay for workers who can't work -- not good business.
It makes good business sense, then, to get injured workers off compensation rolls and back on payrolls as quickly as possible. Specific rules govern how DoD does this.
"Rehabilitated workers are brought back either to the same position or an 'accommodated position' [one that allows for any disabilities the employee may have]," Scanlon said. "If they recover within one year, they have an absolute right to a position in the agency. If they're out more than a year, they receive priority placement to the next available position. And if they haven't recovered but can work, we try to accommodate them in a position within their physical limitations."
When injured employees return to work, personnel offices make sure they understand the restrictions they must work under, based on their physical limitations. How smoothly the worker transitions back into the work force, Scanlon said, depends a lot on the supervisor.
"The supervisor can be a great help by letting the other workers know this person will be back, what his limitations are and what he is expected to be able to do," she said. "If the co-workers buy in -- they may have to do some of this person's heavy lifting, for example -- the return will go much more smoothly."
Scanlon said returning workers also may need "hardening" before they can work a full schedule. "If they've been sitting at home and haven't done anything physical in months, we may start them out at four hours a day, then six hours and gradually the full eight hours," she said. "We work with installation managers to make sure injured persons work up to their capacity but don't overdo it.
"One of our goals is to change managers' attitudes," she continued. "A lot of times, accommodating an injury can be really simple. By removing one piece of a job description, the employee can do the rest of it. He may not be able to lift 50 pounds any more, but he certainly can work."
Scanlon compares her work to saving lives. "We kid about it sometimes, but we really do save employees from spending the rest of their lives in a 'never-never land,' not completely well but not so critically injured they can't work.
"Most people don't want to be injured," she said. "They'd rather be 'able' than 'disabled.' Managers need to recognize this and bring people back to jobs they can do, not just the jobs they were doing."
For the most part, Scanlon said, managers and commanders are getting smarter and perhaps a little more compassionate about how they treat injured employees. "I think they realize removing workers from injury rolls makes good business sense -- and good human sense, too."