ORLANDO, Fla. — Writing clear, accurate and descriptive job requirements can help employers avoid legal issues when it comes to getting an injured worker back to work or providing transitional duty, according to an expert at the Workers’ Compensation Institute’s annual educational conference in Orlando.
“There are certain protections that job descriptions can offer; they can protect from (Americans with Disabilities Act regulations) and other laws that protect workers from discrimination,” said Jaime Sigurdsson, an exercise physiologist and director of workers compensation at CORA Physical Therapy in Longwood, Florida.
Ms. Sigurdsson led a session Tuesday on how employers can best draft what is expected of workers in certain positions: what to include and how to include it, and which pitfalls to avoid.
As part of her presentation, she narrowed down what a job description ought to include: essential job functions, knowledge and critical skills, physical demands, environmental factors, and any other explanatory information that may help clarify the job.
The more narrow and specific, the better, she said.
Federal disability laws require accommodations in most cases, yet other regulations say employers are not required to create new positions or forgo “essential job functions” for injured employees transitioning back to work — a legal concern if an employer doesn’t have specific job descriptions clearly stated, she said.
“That is not an accommodation, saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have to do something that is essential to the job performance,’” she said.
According to Ms. Sigurdsson, many companies forgo the necessary specifics, which can cause problems later. “A lot of the time I have been asked for job descriptions… to kind of get a better idea of what an injured worker has to do to get back to work,” she said, adding that what is often sent her way is problematic.
For example, a requirement that a worker would need to lift 50 pounds doesn’t elaborate that the requirement translates into lifting 50 pounds several times a day as an essential job function — concerns in safety and ADA compliance.
“The common mistakes I see is we don’t separate the function from the method… the function is the completed task, but not how it is completed,” she said. “Instead of lifting 50-pound boxes, you have to say ‘relocate’ 50-pound boxes.”
“We can’t ask, do you have a disability? But you can ask them, can you perform this essential function?” she said. “If you do not have that outlined, how do you know they can perform?”
She said bad descriptions can “really pigeonhole you when you are hiring people or bringing people back after they have been injured.”
The lack of specifics can complicate a claim. Yet overstating a job description can complicate the legal landscape. “(Weight loads) is where people get into a lot of trouble,” she said. “It may still be a heavy job, but if you are expecting to lift 100 pounds and the essential job demands is 60 pounds, you have a 40-pound differentiation that opens you up to a lawsuit.”
Ms. Sigurdsson told the story of analyzing a client’s job descriptions and finding problems with functions that didn’t add up. “I had to do a capacity evaluation for someone who worked on a loading docks” and the job description was “off the wall,” She then called the loading dock, “I said, can you look out the window for me, how many people are on their knees with 50 pounds on their head?”
A must-do for employers is to experience a job to see what it entails, and revamping a job description from there, said Katherine Jones, Winter Park, Florida-based human resources generalist for the City of Winter Park, which rewrote its job descriptions as a risk-management strategy.
The experience went into the nitty-gritty of various city positions, she said. “We did go out and do our observations, to see what it is like to take a tool and see how much strength you have to have,” said Ms. Jones. “To actually experience it is eye-opening.”
A side effect is “we also uncovered a number of safety issues,” adding Ms. Sigurdsson, who helped the city revamp its job descriptions.