By CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & InsuranceŽ
CHICAGO---Twenty years ago, workers' compensation expenses incurred by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), one of the nation's largest public transit systems, were daunting.
As many as 1,100 of it's 9,500 employees were receiving workers' compensation checks--an outflow worth as much as $28 million every year, recalled Linda Yoxtheimer, the assistant director of vocational rehabilitation for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
In addition, two meager, loosely structured return-to-work initiatives implemented by management failed miserably.
SEPTA may have been moving millions of straphangers every year, but when it came to workers' compensation, the company was literally in a state of paralysis. It needed help, and lots of it.
Enter the soft-spoken Yoxtheimer, who was given the task of revamping the company's return-to-work program. Coming from a background of human resources, Yoxtheimer was not a hardened veteran of the return-to-work program implementation circuit. She represented some fresh blood.
She got to work fast, but this time around her work wasn't all about sitting in an office. It consisted of riding the trains and busses to get out into the field and visit SEPTA's field management offices.
That's where she met the bulk of the in-the-trenches personalities, long-serving SEPTA men and women with the most at stake in implementing return-to-work practices on behalf of the public transportation authority, which covers a five-county area in and around Philadelphia.
"Companies are like people, they have personalities," said Yoxtheimer, speaking Friday on the last day of the 18th Annual National Workers' Compensation and Disability ConferenceŽ & Expo at Chicago's McCormick Place.
Whether it was winning over gruff union supervisors, or negotiating with the station chief armed with engineering or management degrees, Yoxtheimer visited every office and every station and talked with as many people as she could.
The key was to pierce the hearts and souls of the hundreds of people running the public transit authority--and convince them that a solid return-to-work program was worth their time.
"I wanted to understand from the perspectives of people doing work, what were the strengths and weaknesses. I needed to get to know them--location management and union officials. I knew I would have to romance them."
And romance them she did. By the time she and her team were ready to implement their return-to-work model, she knew which buttons to press--literally--and how to sway the decision-makers and mollify the prickly personalities.
"Understanding your company before implementing programs means you have answers before problems even arise," she said.
Fast forward to 2009, and Yoxtheimer and her colleagues are responsible for a big turnaround. Since August of 1999, as many as 3,219 injured employees have been placed into transitional duty assignments.
In the 2008-2009 fiscal year alone, 430 injured workers were placed into transitional duty, according to SEPTA statistics provided by Yoxtheimer. The average transitional duty assignment lasts 22 days.
The company maintains a turn-around time of less than 24 hours upon receipt of work release to assignment, and as many as 70 percent of all employees filing new claims are placed each month, she also said.
Placing injured workers back on the job through transitional duty matters, according to several studies. Employees who remain off the job for 16 weeks or more rarely come back to work, said Yoxtheimer, citing national statistics. Therefore, the faster a worker can get back to work--any kind of work that fits their injury--the higher the chances of that worker remaining on the job.
A separate 1998 study by the Louisiana Workers' Compensation Corporation found that in companies with well managed return-to-work programs that include transitional duty, as many as 90 percent of injured workers go back to work within four days of their injury and lost time days are reduced because injured workers recover three time fast while working.
As a result, it's critical for a company to provide a range of duties for workers' coming back to work through transitional duties, so that workers can scale up to progressively more complex tasks as their health improves, said Yoxtheimer.
(Click here to read all of our other coverage from the Annual National Workers' Compensation and Disability ConferenceŽ
November 23, 2009
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