By Karen English and Teri Weber

It’s all about managing absence and building more cost-effective return-to-work processes. According to Spring Consulting Group’s 4th Consecutive Employer Survey of Integrated Trends, 59% of employers have been able to document increased return to work rates by integrating their programs.

As part of these programs, 71% rely on a single source to manage both STD and FMLA, and 54% include ADA and ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) support. As the FMLA continues to be reviewed and the ADAAA has broadened the definition of “disability,” the best practice for disability management programs is to automate rules within their absence process to comply with the FMLA and ADA/ADAAA.

Why Integration Makes Sense

PuzzleSome employers work under the assumption that FMLA absences lack the volatility or risk of a leave due to disability or injury. However, the FMLA is not just a mandate to protect employees and their jobs while they’re caring for family; it applies also to employees with illnesses or injuries that may or may not become disabilities.

Under the rules for the federally mandated family medical leave, employees suffering their own serious health condition are granted 12 weeks of unpaid leave with the same insurance coverage as the employee had while not on leave.

Also, the FMLA covers injuries regardless of where they occur. Therefore, work-related injuries may also require compliance with the FMLA.

Some employers may integrate a few areas, but lack integration related to occupation and non-occupational absences. Failure to certify a work-related injury as a FMLA absence will translate into the employee having additional job protected time available to them during the year for future absences.

Disability programs are no longer stand-alone initiatives. The best plans combine short term disability (STD), long term disability (LTD), workers’ compensation (WC), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements into one process, creating a more manageable and comprehensive program for all parties involved.

While most employers understand the rules, many are not getting it right. According to the latest figures from the US Department of Labor, 1,082 employees were awarded over $1.5 million in back wages (2008 results). The payouts were due to complaints brought against employers for violations of FMLA. Of the 1,889 complaints brought against employers, 757 of them were for wrongful termination.

Cost Benefits

By combining all management programs into an integrated approach, employers can save money by applying early intervention techniques, eliminating redundant processes, facilitating earlier return  to work, and reducing the amount of administrative time spent managing multiple programs. Also, absenteeism can be tracked more efficiently if employers are using one process for multiple programs instead of managing several processes at once.

Integration also frees up staff to better manage employee files and processes. The result is improved tracking and reporting, better communication with the employee, and increased morale, which can lead to a faster return to work.

Employees also benefit from an integrated approach. A more simplified process alleviates a lot of the stress and confusion that goes along with the process. In addition it gives them a greater sense of control and understanding of how their time is being tracked and managed.

Additionally, an integrated disability management program can improve compliance at both the federal and state levels, saving fines and legal action. With the myriad of changes in the FMLA law and with the need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers can easily find themselves at odds with the law. The integrated approach applies the same best practices to all employee leaves, ensuring a more comprehensive approach and management.

Benefits to ADA Compliance

It is not just a good idea to make ADA claims management part of an integrated management plan, it is a critical part of managing the requirements of the law. By centralizing the benefits management, employers can better address compliance, not just with the ADA, but with the more recent ADAAA updates and requirements. Employees experience seamless access to benefits and employers reduce employee dissatisfaction.

Also, essential job functions are determined in many cases by the disability management provider, which allows employers to provide reasonable accommodations in a more comprehensive manner, or determine if it’s even possible. The disability management provider can then make recommendations for return-to-work options and modified work duties where possible.

A fully integrated disability management program will clarify the limitations of each disabled employee and work with medical providers to ensure the employee’s medical needs are met and, through the interactive process, put appropriate transitional work programs in place.

One of the largest factors in a successful application of an integrated program is the level of communication among all parties. Employers are given a review of the employee’s needs and requirements, supervisors are included in discussions about the employee’s work limitations, and the employee is briefed on what is expected and what accommodations have been provided.

According to ADA and ADAAA, an employee must be part of any dialogue concerning his or her work options. A successful disability management program starts with involving the employee as early as the intake of the claim or leave, and carries through to the accommodation or work modification taken.


Navigating the intertwined paths of disability, WC, FMLA and ADA, not to mention other leaves of absence or paid time off employees might take, is a complex and costly process which is best managed under one set of best practices.

Smart employers understand the value in approaching compliance and employee relations with a comprehensive program that addresses each phase of the employee absence and maintains optimum communications with the employee across all types of leave and benefit.

By integrating FMLA and ADA into a disability and WC management program, employers can reduce costs, increase compliance, and improve employee relations. Returning employees to work either through modified duties or through programs that ease them back into the workplace is the best outcome for both employer and employee, and contributes to employee satisfaction and overall engagement with the organization.

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Karen English

Karen English

Karen Trumbull English, CPCU, ARM, ACI, AU is a Partner with Spring Consulting Group, LLC, formerly Watson Wyatt Insurance & Financial Services, Inc. She has twenty years of experience that spans across both health & welfare and property & casualty arenas, and routinely works with her clients on program strategy, product development, process improvement and market research initiatives. She leads the firms’ health and productivity approach and is actively involved in voluntary and other emerging benefits. Prior to joining Spring Consulting Group and Watson Wyatt, Karen led the regional risk & insurance practice for a small consulting firm, held the role of Assistant Risk Manager for one of the nation’s largest banks (U.S. Bank), and was a casualty broker for two of the world’s largest insurance brokers (Marsh and Aon). Karen has her BBA in Risk Management and Human Resources from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her MBA in Finance from University of Minnesota – Carlson School of Management. She has also earned the designations of CPCU, ARM, ACI, and AU and is a licensed insurance broker.