The Importance of the Interactive Process in Workers’ Compensation and Beyond

Bryon Bass
Senior Vice President, Workforce Absence and Disability Practice Leader, Sedgwick
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Risk managers and human resource professionals have an opportunity to collaborate in ways that will benefit their organizations as well as provide a more seamless employee experience. The connection of workers’ compensation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides an insightful illustration of why this broader collaboration is so important.

Workers’ compensation programs are subject to both federal and state statutes. Risk managers are familiar with state statutes that govern workers’ compensation such as the schedule of benefit payments, selection of treating physicians and use of managed care techniques. But, they must also contend with federal legislation such as the ADA that human resource professionals are accustomed to managing.

Under the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities, and this applies to both occupational as well as non-occupational injuries and illnesses. In structuring return-to-work and stay-at-work programs, employers must comply with the ADA as it pertains to reasonable accommodations. This includes applying a consistent accommodation approach across the organization, regardless of what caused the injury or illness, or where it occurred.

A question can arise as to what happens when an employee has reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) but has long-term restrictions and limitations. A necessary, and sometimes overlooked, step to support the employee is through the interactive process, a requirement under the ADA.

Simply stated, the interactive process is a way to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be made for a restriction/limitation due to the employee’s injury or illness.  It is triggered when an employer becomes aware or should be aware of an employee’s potential disability and its impact on the individual’s ability to perform essential functions of their job. In some cases, the employee may request an accommodation. The process can also be initiated when an employee has exhausted all statutory leave entitlements, whether due to a work-related or non-work-related injury or illness.

A key part of the process is an obligation to have an interactive dialogue with the employee.  An interactive dialogue typically consists of an exchange between the employee, supervisor, human resource representative and/or return-to-work coordinator. When possible, it is also valuable to include the heath care provider as an additional resource to gain perspective and information related to the impairment, potential restrictions or limitations, and guidance as to whether an accommodation will likely be successful.

Organizational policies that require injured employees to be completely free of restrictions before returning to work are in violation of the ADA. There have been cases where employees have proven that their employers regarded them as having a disability by showing that the employer would not let them return to work until 100% recovered. Using a 100% recovery standard violates the ADA because it removes the opportunity for the employee to pursue reasonable accommodation.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. JAN can be accessed at

While the complexities surrounding workers’ compensation and disability accommodations will continue, public entities have access to resources and expertise to address these challenges. By leveraging the collective experience of risk management and human resource professionals, public entities will continue to find ways to elevate both experience and performance.

    *The views and opinions expressed in the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA) blogs are those of each respective author. The views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PRIMA.*

    By: Bryon Bass
    Senior Vice President, Workforce Absence and Disability Practice Leader, Sedgwick

    In this position, Bryon is responsible for overseeing disability and absence management product standards and compliance. Previously, he was the director of integrated disability management at Pacific Gas and Electric where he oversaw company-wide integrated delivery of disability and absence management services, comprised of self-insured/self-administered workers’ compensation, fitness for duty, leave of absence, accommodation and time-off programs.

    Bryon has a wide range of experience in health and productivity management, both from an employer HR and benefits role perspective as well as third party administration. His responsibilities have included client relationships, service operations and product management for disability, and absence management products. Bryon has also been active as an author and seminar leader dealing with topics including: short/long-term disability, FMLA/leave of absence, paid leave, corporate health and wellness strategies, workers’ compensation, and integrated disability program design.

    Bryon earned a Bachelor of Science in business and a minor in e-business from University of Phoenix. He also holds a designation as a Certified Leave Management Specialist.

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