For more than 20 years, the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy has worked to increase the inclusion of people with disabilities in America’s workforce. This includes not only those who may have grown up with disabilities, but also those who acquire them due to injury or illness.
This dimension of our work is critical because millions of American workers experience injury or illness each year, and for many, it puts their future employment at peril. In 2019, about 6 million workers stopped working or reduced their hours due to an injury or illness. For some, such disruptions are short-lived, but for others they are long-lasting and impact family and friends, employers and coworkers, and society as a whole.
There is good news, though. The benefits of helping ill or injured workers keep or resume working once ready are equally far-reaching. When a coordinated delivery system of healthcare and employment services is in place, many individuals can stay at or return to their jobs or find new work if necessary—and doing so can actually aid in their recovery.
We know this because we’ve seen the results in states like Washington, through its innovative workers’ compensation system, and those participating in the RETAIN—Retaining Employment and Talent after Injury/Illness Network—initiative. Under this initiative, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio and Vermont have developed stay-at-work/return-to-work programs that provide critical services to injured and ill workers. While each state is using a different approach based on its workforce needs, key to the success of these and other successful stay-at-work/return-to-work programs is strong relationships between healthcare providers, the workforce system and employers.
One example from Kansas illustrates this. A mechanic in his mid-50s injured his knee at home just days after being laid off from his job. He needed surgery to repair a ligament. During a follow-up appointment, he shared concerns about finding another job given both the injury and his age, and his doctor referred him to Kansas’s RETAIN program. An employment coordinator at a local American Job Center then helped him explore the kind of work he wanted to pursue and train for a commercial driver’s license. Throughout, his employment coordinator was in touch with a nurse navigator from the hospital to ensure everything in his return-to-work plan was fine from a medical perspective. Ultimately, the individual earned his license and started a new job with a local wrecking company—and a higher paycheck.
Another example from Minnesota involves a worker named Allan who was concerned about returning to his job at a cheese processing company after a spinal surgery. Minnesota RETAIN’s return-to-work case manager helped navigate conversations with Allan’s health care provider and employer, so that Allan could focus on healing. When Allan was ready to get back to work, the RETAIN team helped him to return gradually to make sure he did so safely. Allan is back on the job, full time, thanks in large part to the assistance from RETAIN Minnesota.
Helping workers who experience injury or illness stay at or return to work, with needed supports, is critical to not just their recovery, but our entire nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, many of the best practices uncovered through our work on stay-at-work/return-to-work over the past 20 years are now helping us better assist workers who have long-term COVID-19 symptoms. Regardless of the nature of the condition, our commitment to workers who experience illness or injury remains the same. They’re valued members of our nation’s workforce, and we’re committed to helping them stay in the workforce.
Meredith DeDona is a senior policy advisor and Christopher McLaren is a senior economist in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.