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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jennifer Sheehy: The dignity of work

By Jennifer Sheehy U.S. Department of Labor

On this 125th Labor Day, and every day, we at the U.S. Department of Labor honor and celebrate the contributions of America’s workers, and reaffirm our commitment to helping them build skills, find employment and succeed on the job. We help millions of people in all sorts of circumstances and we are constantly reminded of an important fact: that work is about more than just a paycheck.

The unemployment rate has remained at or below 4 percent for 17 months in a row, and we have more job openings than job seekers. However, we know that there is more to maintaining a strong labor force than helping workers prepare for and find work; we must also help individuals sustain employment long term, including after injury or illness.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were nearly 3.5 million nonfatal, work-related injuries and illnesses, and the National Safety Council tallied 19.6 million more injuries and illness off the clock that put workers’ future employment in peril. Hundreds of thousands end up leaving the workforce, despite a desire to keep contributing and providing for their families.

This is the impetus behind the DOL Office of Disability Employment Policy’s Retaining Employment and Talent after Injury/Illness Network (RETAIN), which is the firstfederal government investment in early intervention services that specifically targets workers who become ill or injured and want to stay in or return to the workforce as soon as medically possible.

The initiative is modeled after Washington state’s successful Centers for Occupational and Health Education (COHE). In Washington, workers who had the benefit of the COHE program returned to work after fewer days absent, experienced reduced health care costs, and stayed in the labor force at higher rates. Through RETAIN, we now want to apply the strategies it used to other states and create replicable models for use nationwide.

Work is a positive health outcome and these states are introducing the important but not yet fully explored role health care providers can play in restoring these workers’ health with a goal of employment. The goal is to help workers maintain their livelihood, for the benefit of not only themselves, but also their families, employers and communities.

To me, this work is deeply personal. In 1994, I sustained a severe spinal cord injury, losing my ability to walk and use my hands. The first few days were a blur of surgery, tests and medical teams surrounding me, with my family by my side. When I realized I would have a long-term, if not permanent, disability, I feared for my future. Would I always be dependent on others and government benefits? Or could I continue to contribute, as I had envisioned, to my family and community?

While I was still in the hospital, my employer at the time, an Anheuser-Busch executive, came to visit and assured me there would always be a place for me when I was ready and at whatever capacity I was able to work. My relief was immediate, restoring the vision I had for myself. Those few words, combined with support from my amazing medical team, sustained me through long, intense rehabilitation. They reinforced to me how much work matters to all of us, as individuals. The dignity of work is important to every worker.

Now, I am privileged each day to lead an office that develops and tests policies and works with states, employers and other individuals to help Americans with disabilities set and achieve their goals and experience the intrinsic dignity of work. By helping ill and injured workers remain in the labor force, we can ensure that our historically robust economy empowers all Americans.

Jennifer Sheehy is the deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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