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Changes to watch for in disability and absence management

Employee leave continues to undergo change and become increasingly complex. Although several regulations, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act and Amendments Act (ADA/AA), have been in place for several years, legal interpretation and application are subject to ongoing clarification. Meanwhile, regulatory initiatives under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are still unfolding.

At the same time, new state and local leave laws emerge on a regular basis, largely because of societal demands related to work-life balance and workplace flexibility. In early 2016, Vermont became the fifth state to enact a paid sick leave law, joining one county and 20 U.S. cities. Other initiatives are pending and several are expected to pass. Even as this article goes to press, information may become outdated.

Paid leave is also part of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign; and changes at the federal level too are ongoing. Last year, President Obama signed an executive order that requires certain federal contractors to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave annually.

Trends to watch

It is therefore essential that office managers keep up to date on employee leave as it affects their medical practices and staff.

Terri Rhodes, CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC), a non-profit association dedicated to disability and absence management, provides insight into several trends managers should watch for in 2016 and beyond.

Paid Leave: a national issue. “If paid family and sick leave were issues in 2015, they will be the issues of 2016,” Rhodes says. “More large employers will follow the likes of Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Amazon, and other leading companies to implement or expand their own leave policies. And there will be even more efforts to pass paid leave laws in cities and states, including Washington, D.C. and Maryland.”

Rhodes also notes that the Democratic presidential nominee will seek to build on FMLA and make paid federal leave a significant campaign issue.

Any changes to laws will have implications for small businesses as well as large employers.

And the implications could be far-reaching. “This means more complex process management, heightened compliance demands, and increased public attention to organizations that come under legal or other scrutiny,” Rhodes says.

ADA administration drives increased partnering. Another trend, according to Rhodes, has to do with the ADA.

“As with FMLA, more employees than ever are aware of their rights under the ADA,” she says. “As a result, growing numbers of employers will look to their current short-term disability (STD), long-term disability (LTD) insurance, and FMLA partners to help them manage the ADA process.”

Rhodes notes that there are tools and resources, including automated software systems, to help employers manage the accommodation requests and processes associated with ADA. “These tools are increasingly cost effective,” she says.

Workforce well-being moves front and center. Rhodes also sees greater focus on workforce well-being. “The Affordable Care Act has given a large and sustained push to preventing illness,” Rhodes explains. “This directly impacts the absence and/or disability that accompanies those illnesses.”

As a result, benefits like gym memberships, which used to be viewed as “nice perks” are now viewed as tied to well-being and seen as tool to help control health care costs.

Going forward, Rhodes foresees a great emphasis on behavioral health as part of workplace well-being. “Depression and other mental health issues are increasingly recognized as topics of major concern when it comes to employee well-being. Attention given to these areas brings lower health-related costs, including those related productivity,” she says.

Steps employers are taking

A survey conducted by DMEC finds employers are taking a number of approaches to leave management, in order to meet challenges posed by changing laws. These include:

Program outsourcing. More employers are outsourcing leave management, and vendor satisfaction is increasing. Outsourcing requires process and program reviews, which generally lead to changes that produce efficiencies and greater legal and regulatory compliance.

More staff. Employers have added staff and resources to more effectively manage leave. This enables them to focus on more complex aspects of intermittent leave, regulatory variations, enforcement, and abuse.

Centralization. Policies are becoming more uniform and more centrally organized. Centralization of information and resources enables employers to better prepare for U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) inquiries.

Technology. Employers are increasingly using automated systems for FMLA management. This has led to additional investment in technology to upgrade and integrate time and attendance, payroll, and HR systems.

Strategic focus. Employers are continually expanding both tactical and strategic programs. As leave has increasing legal, reputational, and hiring and retention dimensions, programs increasingly involve additional departments and are tied to strategic business goals.

“Leave is a social, legal, political, and strategic business issue,” says Rhodes. “Employers increasingly view leave this way, and are hiring staff, investing in technology and partner relationships, to effectively manage it and all forms of absence.”

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