What a relief to be attending an in-person DMEC conference, the first since 2019 to be held in a physical location. A common theme among attendees of this year’s DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference: gratitude for face-to-face interactions. On the first day of the conference, SunLife presenter Abigail O’Connell commented that it was the first presentation she’d made in two years where she wasn’t worried that a dog or a kid would interrupt her. Although I’m certain that the upcoming virtual conference will provide real value, too, it was inspiring and enjoyable to connect in person with so many experts, colleagues, and partners. As chairman of DMEC’s board, I was also happy to see that over 80 first-time attendees were present. I’m encouraged by the number of early-career professionals who chose to join us, and heard a lot of enthusiasm about the educational opportunities that DMEC (Disability Management Employer Coalition) provides.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 was mentioned in nearly every presentation at the conference. The impact of the pandemic on absence management has been profound, and the effects are not going to be limited to any specific epidemic or outbreak. As Sheri Giger of Jackson Lewis PC put it during a presentation titled “Disability, Leave and Reasonable Accommodation: Year in Review & Future Forecast”, it’s probably time to stop talking about “returning to normal”. Sheri quoted two different court cases where decisions used language like “pre-COVID world” and the world being a “much different place in 2016 and 2017.” I teamed up with Carla Flinn, ReedGroup’s VP of Absence Management Best Practices, to talk about pandemic-related tripping points for employers when we reviewed common areas of employer faux pas in absence management; the pandemic resulted in some notable bloopers where employers did not fare well in court. Other pain points: parental leave and USERRA.
Who doesn’t love a good skit? We all enjoyed watching Bryon Bass, playing “Sheldon Cooper” of the Big Bang Theory and his HR manager (played by Adam Morrell) discussing modified duty, and yes, we got the message: “100% healed” policies are not good. This was a great topic because it’s a persistent problem, and a mistake made by many employers.
“100% healed” policies prevent the kind of individualized assessments that allow appropriate accommodations to be put in place, and they can prevent an employee from seeking a reasonable accommodation. That adds up to circumstances that could keep people with disabilities from performing work that they are otherwise qualified to do. All in all – not good. What is good: interactive processes that engage the employee, really considering individual circumstances closely, and accommodations that work for both the employer and the employee. In the age of the Great Resignation, return to work programs are no longer optional; they’re a key tool to support ongoing employee engagement, helping employees feel valued and keeping experience within your workforce.
That brings us to another major theme of this conference: In this post-COVID world, the talent landscape and workplace have evolved, and employers need to consider absence management an essential part of HR strategy. The stakes have changed. With workforces depleted by resignations and career switching, employers can’t simply hope for the best and count on employees returning to work after a leave of absence. Absence management programs now need to include intentional, supportive engagement with employees while they are off work, to ensure they’re coming back at the right time and that they’re not isolated while they’re off work.
As always, DMEC delivered a meaningful conference filled with the education that we need to navigate absence management challenges effectively, during uncertain times. I’m already looking forward to DMEC’s Annual conference in August.