Wednesday, August 10, 2005

DISABILITY and WORKING (Part #2); Making the Systems Work For You

DISABILITY AND WORKING

In yesterday’s blog, we discussed the JAN – the Job Accommodation Network, and just how valuable a resource that link is to those of us who are disabled, yet still working.

Also in yesterday’s blog, we left me as the VP-HR for an entire Ship Repair Yard. As you can probably imagine, my job description was very extensive. For example, consider the following.

Ø I was responsible for, and/or did all the work for Employee Relations; Labor Relations; compensation; benefits; Workers Compensation (averaging 300-400 incidents per year). We had a Training Center, on site that was my responsibility. I also personally handled all of the Employment litigation. This meant representing the Shipyard in court and other legal/labor proceedings.
Ø Each day was crammed full of meetings, crises, activities, etc.
Ø The job required extensive patience, experience, maturity, tact, expertise, and the ability to remain calm in the middle of multiple crises.

So, I received the conclusive diagnosis, and, probably like you, I thought I could still do my job. The day I knew that I had to cut back will remain always in my mind: I had a Craft Manager (Painters) and his Union Business Agent and Shop Steward in my office, very agitated; I had the Safety Director and an employee out in the hallway; I had the Executive VP for Production on my cell phone; and I had the Owner on my land line (phone). All were talking (yelling) at me at once. Now, this was typical, but for the first time I froze; I could not multi-task effectively to provide the customer service to all of these clients in the manner that they deserved. My vision left (big black holes in my right eye; “heat waves” in my left – Optic Neuritis); my MS had reached the stage that I was too tired and too befuddled to effectively manage the work.

So, what was I to do? Now remember, even w-a-y back then I was an Expert Patient; a Chronic Disease Self-Manager; and practiced Patient-Oriented health care with my Doctors. It is probably not a surprise to you that I also was a very collaborative Executive with my fellow Ship Repair Yard Executives, including the Owner. I knew that he would work with me to come up with a plan to allow me to continue working to the full extent of my capabilities, but I NEEDED TO ACCEPT AND TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY for describing WHAT that looked like, HOW that would happen, WHO needed to do what, WHEN all steps needed to happen, and HOW to ensure that the process followed all relevant federal, state, local laws, company policy, vendor regulations, etc.

Sounds like a big job, doesn’t it? Well, looking back, it was. But, in the moment, at the time, I did what I recommend that you do as you begin the process. DO NOT think of the entire process; focus on the end result, always keep it in mind, but set up a plan, stick to the plan, and take things one step at a time. (Just the way one eats an elephant – one bite at a time!)

AND, you get a big advantage over what I was facing! I’ve been there before you; I faced the problem, worked out the following process, and have been blessed with the ability to share it with you. Hopefully, you too will be successful with your own journey.

The Journey From Working Full Time to Working With a Disability.[1] (Note: this blog is only describing the steps in the process. For greater detail and copies of the documents in the process, they, and the actual examples I used, can be found at the www.disabilitykey.com website, in the Disabilitykey Workbook.)

Step #1: Know where you are going, and begin your journey in enough time to keep control over the process of getting there!
Ø Recognize that the end goal is to create a process that will be a “win-win” for both you and your company. The goal for the company is to retain you, a valuable employee, and your knowledges, skills and abilities. Define this goal for yourself; do you want to go on LTD (long term disability); do you want to retain your income at a level amount; what do you want?
Ø Start this process early enough so that you retain control over your future, as I did. Do NOT wait until your supervisor comes to you and says that you have a problem – you aren’t getting your work done, etc. At that time, you have already lost control, because your supervisor would have talked to your Human Resources Department, and they would have attempted to set up a plan for you. Now, not to sound too paranoid, but in my experience, most HR folks are woefully deficient in knowing what to do in these circumstances (yes, I know, another challenge for me to accept, and I do have plans to address this situation); and, any plan that they would/could come up with probably would not benefit you as well as the company.
Ø DO NOT TALK to your supervisor or to Human Resources until after you have developed your plan.

Step #2: Gather up all relevant documents.

Ø Collect all copies of your benefit Summary Plan Descriptions (SPD).
Ø Get a copy of your Company’s Employee Handbook.
Ø Get your Job Description. Also, go to your Human Resources department, and see if you can get copies of other job descriptions for jobs other than your own that you believe that you might be able to do, in spite of your condition’s symptom impairments.
Ø Access the JAN website and print out the information about your specific condition. Look particularly at the examples other companies have made as reasonable accommodations for employees with symptom impairments similar to yours. It is important to do some research here. Look at conditions similar to yours, and the symptom impairments for those conditions. Continue to research until you find just what matches YOUR specific situation.

Step #3: Specifically, set your goal.
Ø It is easier in the following steps to have an actual example to work with, so I will use my own. (NOTE: as you begin your process and have questions, remember that you can ask them as a comment to this blog and get not only my response, but those of thousands of your new best friends in your exact circumstances! And, as you ask questions and receive answers, you will also be helping others like yourself. So, y’all unshy people, ask and answer away!)
Ø MY SITUATION: 1) I decided that I still had something to offer to my company, in a lesser position; 2) I wanted to go on LTD yet still work; 3) I wanted to maintain my pay, if I could figure out how to do it; 4) I wanted to keep my health insurance and other benefits (like vacation and sick leave) benefits. THIS BECAME MY GOAL.
Ø MY RESULTS: As a result of using this process, I was successful in working through my LTD elimination period of 6 months (180 days) and 1 year on LTD for my own occupation for a year, at a lesser job, at full pay, while maintaining my health insurance and other company benefits.

Step #4: List the questions you need to answer in support of your goal, and answer them by researching your previously gathered documentation.
Ø I started with goal #2 first, because I needed to know what “triggered” my LTD. It may not surprise you, but it REALLY surprised me that what triggered LTD eligibility wasn’t having a disabling disease/condition or accident, but a pay cut specifically caused by symptom impairment of that disease/condition or accident on my ability to perform the essential duties of my job! Once I knew this, it made sense, as LTD is an insurance policy; its purpose is to augment pay lost due a “pay-impacting disability”! DUH! Now all I had to do is figure out just how much of a pay cut triggered the eligibility.
Ø In my case, it was a 20% pay cut. BUT, I also discovered that my LTD had a 180 day “Elimination period” that I would need to fulfill before being eligible to receive any money from my LTD insurance. Also, since my LTD insurance paid 60% of my base pay, if I wanted my pay to continue at 100%, I needed to figure out how to get the 40% back while on LTD.
Ø As for goal #4, I read in my Employee Handbook that I had to keep working at least 32 hours per week to retain eligibility for my company’s health insurance plan.
Ø For goal #3, if I was only going to work for 32 hours, and going to 32 hours per week equated to a 20% pay cut! BUT, as I wanted to retain my pay, I had to figure out how to get income for the other 8 hours per week.
Ø So, if you are paying attention, I needed to work my own job for 180 days (six months) for 32 hours; I needed documentation that what caused me to take this action was my condition’s symptom impairments; I needed to figure out how to “earn back” income for the additional 8 hours per week; and, I needed to figure out what job(s) I could go to after my LTD elimination period for 60% of my base pay paid by LTD insurance, and what I could do in partnership with my company that would pay me the additional 40% of my base pay to get it back up to 100%.
Ø First of all, it WAS NOT EASY AT ALL to literally wring information out of my LTD insurance Carrier! When I started asking them questions, their first reaction was why would I want to continue to work? No one ever had before, why should I? It took me about a month to go through enough folks to get the answers to my questions, but it should not be a shock to y’all that I prevailed. Here’s what I learned.
1. My specific LTD plan said that I could earn income during the elimination period, and for the first year of coverage, as long as the amount earned, added to the LTD amount, did NOT EXCEED the amount of my full pay prior to triggering LTD.

2. The 20% pay cut action that triggered my LTD was for actual “work” pay; it did not cover sick and vacation pay. So, I worked it out with my company[2] that I was going to keep my current job and pay during the 180 day LTD elimination period. Each week I would get a check cut from payroll for 32 hours “worked”. I then would get a check for 8 hours of sick and/or vacation pay. The 2 together kept my pay whole; the process complied with my LTD requirements, and met my stated goals. (As an aside, this is another reason why it is a good idea to keep a “bank” of useable sick and vacation pay. Also, my timing was such that my 180 days covered 2 different calendar years, and our company had the policy of “granting” all vacation time at the beginning of each calendar year. This was how I was able to use the 28 days of combination sick and vacation time to augment my work pay and keep my “total” pay complete.)
3. At the end of the 180 day elimination period, I accepted another job that my company, my doctors, the LTD insurance company and I agreed that I could perform.[3] Again, keeping my end goals in mind, and knowing that my LTD insurance would pay me 60% of my base pay, and I wanted to continue to earn benefits, I negotiated a position that would allow me to work for 32 hours a week, in a contributing capacity, that paid 40% of my base pay. As you can probably see, this arrangement was GREAT for both me and for my company.

Well, folks, this had again been a long blog, but I hope that it will be helpful for you. GOOD LUCK!!!
[1] Note: This process does NOT cover working while on SSDI, nor does it cover going back to work FROM SSDI coverage. If there is interest in those processes, let me know and I’ll create them for you.
[2] Actually, I did an entire proposal for my Company after I did all of the research, and had all of the answers. It included my goals, what I had learned, the steps I needed to take, what Jobs I thought I could do, the entire kit and caboodle as my kids would say. Again, it is this “Expert Patient”, being in control, doing the work ahead of time that got and keeps getting me results!
[3] Again, the process of working with your Doctors and completing what is called a Residual Functional Capacity analysis and all that this entails to first qualify for LTD, and, next, to qualify for a job you, your company, your doctors and the LTD company are OK with is covered in great detail in the Disabilitykey Workbook.

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