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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Incentives for injured employees to stay in the workforce pass the House

Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley, speaks on the House floor Jan. 25, 2024, in Olympia, Wash.   (Courtesy of Legislative Support Services)

In a move aimed toward bolstering workforce participation, legislation encouraging employees injured or disabled by their job to return to work sooner unanimously passed the House floor Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley, increases the monetary incentives for workers and their employers participating in the state’s Stay at Work Program and the Preferred Worker Program.

Before she was a lawmaker, Schmidt worked in claims management with employers. She saw firsthand how programs like these positively benefit both parties and get people back to work.

“It was very structured in the way that employees were offered light-duty jobs, and it also offered the employer to receive a portion of their wages back from the state,” she said.

If an employee sustains a temporary injury or disability while working, they have the option to enroll in the Stay at Work Program through the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. Under this initiative, workers are provided with light or transitional jobs while receiving their regular pay, and employers are reimbursed by the state for up to 50% of the employee’s wages.

“It’s an incentive for the employer to bring their injured workers back,” Schmidt said in an interview. “And it’s also an incentive for the injured worker to get back to work.”

Right now, employers are eligible for up to $10,000 of reimbursement or 66 light-duty workdays. Schmidt’s bill would bump this reimbursement up to $25,000 or a maximum of 120 workdays.

“The average injured worker that’s going to be on a light-duty job is usually about 90 days, so that way we’ll make sure and cover the time they’re in that light-duty position,” she said.

Aside from wage reimbursement, employers can receive up to $2,000 for employee training, $1,000 for clothing and up to $5,000 for technology or equipment the transitional job requires.

This program is funded through Labor and Industries’ Stay at Work account, a premium fund that employees and employers can pay for when they sign up for workers’ compensation insurance.

Occasionally, employers claim they don’t have anything for an employee to do except for the original job of injury, Schmidt said. The goal of the program is to combat this, encouraging employers to develop light-duty positions and retain workers while they’re recovering from injury.

Those responsibilities might include receptionist, customer service or administrative work.

“People get their self-esteem and their social aspects from work,” she said. “If they’re not brought back, they tend to feel isolated, left out and can cause depression, or at least feeling down.”

Labor and Industries’ Preferred Worker Program would also get a financial boost if Schmidt’s bill were signed into law, funded by the Labor and Industries’ Medical-aid premium.

This program applies to cases where a worker is unable to resume their previous job due to a permanent disability. By offering financial incentives, employers can hire and train the injured employee for a new role. This not only motivates employers, but also encourages the worker to explore the possibility of pursuing a new career path.

Currently, people participating in this program can receive a one-time payment of up to $10,000 or 10% of the workers’ wages if they’re employed for at least one year. Schmidt’s bill proposes raising this payment up to $25,000.

“The sooner an injured worker gets back to work, the faster they recover, and the longer they’re off work, the less likely it is they’ll ever return to work,” she said.

The bill heads to the Senate for further consideration.