Alberta’s workers’ compensation scheme is similar to private insurance in that an employer’s premiums can increase dramatically as a result of injury claims. The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board (“WCB”) uses its Experience Rating Plan to adjust an employer’s premiums based on its performance (i.e. claim costs) compared to the industry average.
The most obvious way for an employer to lower its WCB premiums is to improve safety performance and prevent injuries. But employers are also able to manage claim costs by implementing an effective disability management program which is designed to get injured workers back to work as soon as possible. More and more employers are recognizing temporary modified work assignments as an effective tool to keep injured workers engaged in the workplace, support their rehabilitation and gradual return to full duties, and minimize WCB claim costs paid for lost wages.
Employers can accommodate a worker’s injury in a number of different ways, such as modifying the worker’s duties, hours of work or work schedule, work environment or work area, or the equipment and tools used to perform the job. Temporary modified work can also include assigning work to an injured employee that is normally performed by other employees or which has been specifically designed by the employer for its modified work program.
However, problems can quickly arise if the injured worker is not interested in performing the modified work offered by the employer. In these circumstances, the WCB must decide whether or not the injured worker is entitled to continue to receive temporary total disability benefits for lost wages despite his or her refusal to perform modified work.
Under WCB policy, a worker will remain eligible for temporary total disability benefits when there is medical evidence the work-related injury has resulted in temporary work restrictions which prevent the worker from resuming pre-accident employment or other “suitable” employment. Therefore, the WCB generally asks three questions in determining whether or not the benefits payable under a claim ought to be adjusted on account of a worker’s refusal to accept a temporary modified work assignment:
- Was the worker capable of performing modified work at the relevant time?
- Was the modified work proposed by the employer “suitable”?
- Did the worker have a reasonable reason to refuse the offer of modified work?
The first question is determined primarily based on evidence as to the worker’s compensable medical restrictions, which often originates from the worker’s treating physician. In addition, the WCB will sometimes require a claimant to undergo a functional capacity assessment to determine his or her work restrictions.
Provided an injured worker is capable of performing some work (even sedentary duties), the WCB encourages employers to offer modified duties to the worker.
However, the modified work proposed by the employer must be “suitable” in order to place an onus on the worker to provide a reasonable reason for refusing the work. WCB Policy describes “suitable” modified work as work that meets the following five criteria:
- it accommodates the worker's compensable medical restrictions so the worker can perform the duties without endangering his/her recovery or safety, or the safety of others;
- it contributes to the worker's physical and vocational rehabilitation by keeping the worker active and involved in the workplace;
- it promotes the gradual restoration to the worker's pre-accident level of employment;
- it constitutes a meaningful and productive part of the employer's operations; and
- it does not create financial hardship for the worker (for example, by requiring unreasonable travel to another work location).
To determine whether the modified work proposed by an employer is suitable, the WCB will evaluate all available information, such as the employer’s description of the job being offered and its physical requirements, and any medical information outlining the worker's physical restrictions and any other medical requirements that must be accommodated.
The final question asked by the WCB– whether the injured worker has a “reasonable” reason for refusing the proposed modified work – overlaps considerably with the prior two questions. For example, WCB policy lists the following two examples of possible reasonable grounds for a refusal to accept modified work:
medical evidence indicates that the worker is not able to perform the required duties.
a significant discrepancy between the proposed and actual requirements of the work, and the actual requirements do not qualify as suitable work. So provided the employer develops meaningful work which the injured worker is able to safely perform without endangering his or her recovery, the injured worker will have a difficult time establishing reasonable grounds for his or her refusal to accept (or decision to quit) the modified work. In order to effectively manage WCB claim costs with temporary modified work, we would recommend that you:
- assess your work processes with a view to identifying tasks which can be performed by injured employees or modified to accommodate injured employees;
- ensure that any contemplated modified work is necessary and of value to your business;
- educate your employees about your modified work program and the expectation that they perform modified work, where appropriate, in order to facilitate their return to the workplace as soon as possible;
- propose modified duties to your injured employees as soon as possible;
- ensure that the modified work proposed is catered to the employee's medical restrictions and is not too onerous to risk slowing his or her recovery;
- if you have insufficient information to develop a modified work plan for an injured employee, promptly request that his or her treating physician provide detailed information about the employee’s fitness for work and medical restrictions;
- work with the injured employee and his or her treating physician to develop a modified work plan that satisfies all parties;
- seek assistance from the WCB if the employee and/or his treating physician are not interested in pursuing modified work opportunities without good reason;
- document offers of temporary modified work in writing to the employee, setting out in detail the nature of the modified work which has been proposed;
- ensure that your supervisors follow the modified work plan and closely monitor the progress of the injured employee; and
- keep the WCB informed of all modified work arrangements (modified work does NOT eliminate the need to report a workplace accident).
Developing a modified work program wherein follows the above approach is a simple way for employers to support their injured employees in a way which also contributes to the bottom line by helping minimize the impact of claims on the employer’s WCB premiums.