Created with good intentions, a little known state program has had a mixed record on assisting low-income injured workers, some of whom may not even know it exists.
The Return to Work Program was created in 1999 by the California legislature but was not implemented until 2006 when it finally received funding. The program reimbursed employers for expenses incurred to accommodate injured employees returning to the workplace.
A 2010 review of the program by the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers Compensation (CHSWC) described the program as underutilized and not cost effective. Over a two year period the fund paid just 11 employers a total of $8,744.44 out of $500,000 that was available. The Commission found the cost of running the program far exceeded the amounts it paid out and suggested California may want to eliminate it.
The program languished for years until it was re-established as part of the workers’ compensation reforms enacted by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012. A provision within the law required the establishment of the Return to Work Supplement Program which distributes $5000 to injured workers who qualify. By statute the program must be annually funded with $120 million from employer premiums.
The fund is meant to provide an immediate supplement to workers whose permanent disability benefits are disproportionately low compared to their wage losses. Who qualifies and what amount they receive are determined by a state agency, not employers or insurers.
The program began operating in April 2015, two years after it was approved by the legislature.
As of July 2016, the program distributed $41.5 million to 8,495 injured workers.
Some attorneys representing injured workers have said the program is difficult to access and not well publicized. CHSWC is reviewing the program at the request of Sen. Tony Mendoza (embed letter) who wrote to the commission in December, requesting it determine if injured workers are not receiving the benefits they are entitled to.
(Photo: David McSpadden)