Christmas music started playing last week. Another familiar holiday sound started last week — holiday bell ringing by The Salvation Army. But many bell ringers may be injured workers who are being forced to volunteer at a “light duty” assignment.
Nothing under Nebraska law prohibits companies from assigning their injured workers to work for non-profits. In fact, a small industry has cropped up that matches injured workers with non-profits. Of course, that industry and apologists for workers’ compensation insurance industry call this practice a win-win for everyone. I think the benefits of forced volunteer or voluntold work don’t hold up under closer examination. But workers faced with a voluntold assignment face at least two problems:
Injured workers who are voluntold to do volunteer work are paid by their employers. Since the employers are paying them they have to answer to their employers. Workers are also accountable to onsite supervisors for the non-profit. Two bosses leads to communication problems and that often leads to problems for injured workers — who in practical terms are often already on thin ice with many employers for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
When a worker returns to work in a light duty job, there is a good chance that a supervisor has some idea about the employees work restrictions. That’s less likely when dealing with a new employer.
Some so-called light duty jobs aren’t always light. Some injured workers get temporarily assigned to work at Goodwill Stores. However most retail work requires a 50-pound lifting ability along with extended standing. Bell ringing usually requires long-term standing. And while insurance side thought leaders like to use terms like “resilience”, they have cushy indoor jobs. Trying standing outside on a cold December day in Nebraska for eight hours being forced to volunteer. This is never a pleasant prospect and it’s certainly more risky as the COVID pandemic extends into month eight in the United States.
Win-Win or Win-Lose?
The insurance industry touts the well-being benefits of volunteer to work to injured workers. But on closer look these benefits, nebulous as they are, are mostly backed by anecdotal evidence. But even if you take the benefits of corporate volunteering at face value, a lot of those benefits come through so-called VTO or volunteer time off programs. In those programs, companies have employees take time off for community projects or pay employees to volunteer for organizations they care about. That’s a whole other situation from telling an injured worker to go out in the cold and raining bells for the Salvation Army 40 hours a week or they will get fired while they still recovering from an injury.
But while then benefits of voluntold jobs are dubious at best to workers, businesses who voluntold their workers get a nice some nice PR.
Why can’t workers just collect TTD and volunteer on their own?
Why can’t workers just volunteer for an organization they like and collect TTD? Many workers are rightly concerned that employers are surveilling them. But even if a worker isn’t under surveillance, employers and their insurance companies fundamentally like to control their employees — including and especially their injured workers. Employers want to control which doctors you see and what kind of care you get from your doctor through the use of nurse case managers.
But even if an employee manages to get proper medical care for a work injury, some employers aren’t content to let their workers stay home for a few months while they get healed. Employment at-will gives employers all sorts of leverage over their employees. Voluntold programs are just one example of how this power dynamic plays out.
Things work differently when a collective bargaining agreement is in place. Unions sometimes negotiate their own return to work programs. But I’ve seen insurance companies and their vendors ignore these agreements and try to force union members into voluntold jobs.