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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Stay at Work a bright spot in workers’ compensation program

Washington’s workers’ compensation program has more than its fair share of critics, but has gotten some things right in recent years, and its Stay at Work program is one.

Approved by the Legislature in 2011, Stay at Work pays one-half the wages of injured workers if they can be placed in another “light duty” job within a company while they recover. The employer gets to keep a worker with skills it may have taken years to learn; the employee continues to draw a paycheck. And the work-comp program potentially saves $32 million per year it would otherwise have paid out in claims.

More importantly, say supporters, it prevents long-term separations from the workplace while an employee recovers. Months away from the shop floor may be good for the back, but not for the psychology of people who, like most of us, regard their job and their co-workers as a substantial part of their identity.

The grim experience of millions of Americans laid off during the recession who have struggled to retain their employability during months of idleness demonstrates the harm done when someone cannot reconnect with work.

Among three Department of Labor & Industries videos with testimonials to the value of Stay at Work is one featuring Eagle Group in Spokane, and a longtime employee who reinjured his back. After weeks of administrative work that included scheduling and safety audits, he was able to return to full duty.

Stay at Work got off to a relatively slow start in 2012, with only 1,200 workers and 568 businesses participating, with total reimbursements of $2.5 million: Employers must present proof the employee remained on the payroll. Last year, the program passed the 10,000 employee mark. Almost 2,750 employers have collected $24 million in reimbursements.

With the economy improving, more employers may be willing to carry someone on light duty, because the maximum 66 working days of state assistance may be enough to bridge a slowdown in orders. The maximum reimbursement is $10,000 per employee for compensation, plus additional assistance with the costs of training, tools and clothing.

Stay at Work does come with a new premium assessment, but it is not experience-rated, so individual employers are not penalized for participating.

The program does not work for everyone. For example, employers with fewer employees may not be able to carve out a light-duty job that works for them, the employee and the doctor treating him or her. The incentives may not be high enough to induce more employers to participate.

But together with the Centers for Occupational Health & Education program that is identifying best practices for treating workplace injuries, Stay at Work has helped L&I control work-comp premiums that so irritate businesses who have no alternative to the state-run system.

The success of Stay at Work will be determined after a four-year trial. So far, it has shown real staying power.