Managing the Business of Disability at Work

Back injuries are one of the most common forms of disability.
Back injuries are one of the most common forms of disability. (Adobe stock image)

You've got a good, secure job. You enjoy your work, your colleagues, even your commute. Then you become disabled. How do you manage the business of your disability at work?

The Truth About Disability and Coverage

Disabilities are not rare. According to, one out of eight people become disabled every year. A 30-year-old man has a one-in-five chance of suffering a long-term disability before retirement age. For a 30-year-old woman, those odds are one-in-three. The two most common causes of disability are heart disease and back problems, but disabilities can include an injury on the job or at home, a sudden illness or an insidious one.

And disabilities can be daunting. Roughly 50% of people with disabilities lasting longer than six months remain disabled after five years. Modern medicine means the chances of being disabled for more than three months are much greater than those of dying prematurely.

But few American workers give more than a passing thought to disability insurance. White-collar workers often believe it applies only to people in hazardous occupations; meanwhile, those in such jobs often think their employer will protect them. Besides, don't government programs like Social Security and workers' compensation pick up the slack?

According to Donna Hilton, publications director for the National Association of Disability Examiners, Social Security will help -- but there is a five-month waiting period for disability insurance (DI). Eligible claimants do not receive their first check until the sixth month. If a low-income worker qualifies for disability, he can receive benefits (though at a much reduced rate, compared to what is due a DI beneficiary, dating back to the month in which the application was first filed). Hilton says that Social Security and state disability determination services approve close to 67% of claims submitted.

What to Do if You Become Disabled

Kristin Tugman, director of corporate program development for UnumProvident, the world's largest disability insurance company, says a worker who has become disabled should first check into what coverage their employer offers. Her department helps companies work with employees with disabilities to manage lost time.

If a short-term disability policy is in effect, ask a manager or human resources representative for help navigating the process. You may also be able to file a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claim through the U.S. Department of Labor. Workers covered by the FMLA -- generally those who have worked for at least a year at a company with 50 or more employees -- do not receive monetary benefits. However, the FMLA guarantees that an employee cannot be terminated for 12 weeks.

Most employers want to see a doctor-approved treatment plan. This reassurance that the employee wants to return to work can help speed approval of benefits. "The longer a person is out, the less likely someone will return to work," said Tugman, adding that typical short-term disability insurance plans last 26 weeks. "After that, employers tend to terminate people. So communication between the worker, the physician and the company is pivotal."

Employees ready to return to work may ask for -- or companies may offer -- a transitional period, usually 2-4 weeks.

Of course, many employees don't have disability insurance. Some do not sign up, because they don't think they'll need it. Others think they cannot afford it. Some employers do not offer it; others have a modified policy in the form of a salary continuation plan based on seniority.

Individual disability coverage is offered by most carriers, with premiums paid by the policyholder. As with all coverage, disability insurance must be applied for before a condition appears.

As the workforce ages, disability claims are expected to increase, Tugman says. Many employers are afraid workers may use disability benefits as a "retirement plan" to supplement their other benefits, while employees worry filing a disability claim may make them vulnerable to termination after the FMLA-mandated, 12-week period.

For those reasons, Tugman says, it's important for employers, employees and the insurance industry to work together to keep workers healthy and productive.

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