- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2002

Heather Zug turned a debilitating back injury at her old job with a Lancaster, Pa., printing company into a new position in retail with the help of an alternative workers transition program.
The Lititz, Pa., resident received workers' compensation for six months before her former employer, RR Donnelley & Sons Co., sent Miss Zug to a return-to-work program through LewisCo. Group Co., a Deerfield, Ill., re-employment agency.
"I figured the program would drop me in the first thing I was able to do, but I ended up working at a nonprofit for four months before getting into retail, which really interested me," said Miss Zug, 27.
The growing trend of insurance companies and self-insured employers placing claimants in work programs to curb high costs of workers' compensation has allowed LewisCo. to expand its business this month into the Washington area, where the agency plans to take on 50 cases in the next year.
U.S. employers pay $60 billion annually for cases that generally take nine months to three years to resolve, and many are turning to transition programs as an alternative, said Alec Koromilas, member of the Employee Compensation Appeals Board at the U.S. Department of Labor.
"The only people that are going to take issue with this sort of program are the workers who don't want to work," Mr. Koromilas said.
Nonprofit executive directors, such as Scott Schenkelberg with Miriam's Kitchen in the District's Foggy Bottom neighborhood, have expressed an interest in receiving workers.
"Nonprofits are always stretched when it comes to full-time volunteers who can help run operations," such as the homeless shelter's breakfast program that feeds 125 to 250 people each morning, Mr. Schenkelberg said. "We'd have to figure out the logistics, but this is definitely something we'd get on board with, when the opportunity arises."
Workers who can prove they have been injured on the job file claims with their insurance carriers often through their employers for reimbursement during medical leave of two-thirds of their regular pay.
Most return to work. For workers with permanent injuries, companies often will pay a lump sum or settlement to the claimant while others use a rehabilitation program, such as LewisCo., to get the injured party back in a job.
"We're sort of the alternative solution for workers who have failed traditional vocational relocation programs," said Jim Kremer, executive director of LewisCo.
The program started in 1996 in Lancaster, a city with some 55,100 manufacturing jobs and a work force of 230,900, to help injured heavy laborers such as Miss Zug find alternative employment.
So far, LewisCo. has re-employed more than 300 injured workers in Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio, with a Virginia claimant in the beginning phase.
Insurance carriers and employers contract with the program to place long-term claimants first in nearby nonprofit organizations to provide free help while searching for full-time positions, Mr. Kremer said.
Labor unions also are interested in becoming involved with the program, said Rob McGarrah, coordinator for workers' compensation at the AFL-CIO.
"It's a successful move more agencies want to lighten caseloads," Mr. McGarrah said. "But workers should have the same standards in benefits and salary they had before getting injured and the assurance of work safety, which they seem to have through it."
Not all workers complete the program. Mr. Kremer said 20 percent "want to milk the system" and settle their claims within a month.
Like most in the program, Miss Zug collaborated with her vocational-rehabilitation counselor to secure a light clerical stint at the United Way of Lancaster County.
In addition to providing counseling and steady pay averaging $6 to $12 an hour, Mr. Kremer said, the program boosts motivation for clients who have not found permanent work.
"It's daunting for someone who's been a specialty trade worker for 15 years to have to do some meaningless task," Mr. Kremer said.
The continual challenge is matching workers with worthwhile jobs that won't re-injure them, he said.
It generally takes clients four to six months to find permanent employment. Miss Zug said she searched for three months before becoming a key holder, the starting position for an assistant manager, at a QVC Store.
"I liked that my counselor made sure the job was safe and flexible for me," said Miss Zug, who plans on advancing to manager soon.

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