2017 Forecast for Absence and Disability Management

Tasha PattersonDMEC News

What’s on the Horizon for 2017

2017 Trends

By Terri Rhodes, MBA, CPDM, CCMP


Over the last several years, I have written about predictions and forecasts for absence and disability changes for the upcoming year. This year is no exception, but we also know that we will be facing a year of uncertainty with a “wait and see” attitude as the new president and Congress set out their agenda. And while we may not see much change, if any, in leave laws at the federal level, we will most likely continue to see activity occurring at the state level.

Paid Family Leave

2016 was the year of paid family leave. Many hoped in 2017 that we would see change reflected at the federal level. While the chances of that happening are less likely, paid family leave remains the top absence and disability management trend of 2017. Work-life balance is especially important to younger employees, while the labor market continues to tighten. Thus, increasing numbers of large employers are offering paid parental leave as a central recruitment and retention strategy. We’ll see more of this in 2017.

Even more important, localities and states continue to pass paid family leave laws. New York City and San Francisco already have such laws. In 2016, California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island were joined by the District of Columbia (D.C.) with paid leave laws. While not formally a state, D.C. functions like one. What is especially noteworthy about the D.C. law is that it is funded by a tax on employers. The millions of dollars in revenue will be used to set up a separate department to administer the paid parental leave law. If this is imitated in other jurisdictions, it could have major ramifications for the “who pays” dimension of paid leave.

Paid Sick Leave

Over the last several years, paid sick leave laws have ranked high as a continued trend in absence management. Currently, five states, 29 cities, two counties, and Washington, D.C. have some form of a paid sick leave law. And we believe there are more to come with legislation pending in more than 25 states. Most paid leave laws offer job-protected absences and/or layer on top of other job-protected leaves, which provide a host of administrative issues. When you consider the laws themselves, they often differ in the amounts of paid sick leave, eligibility for leave, reason for leave, carry over rules, and the list goes on. Those employers operating in a multi-state environment are left with an even more difficult task of attempting to compliantly manage the various sick leave laws with existing state and federal leave laws. This will be a key issue in 2017.

ADA Outsourcing

Outsourcing absence management has steadily increased over the last several years, with ADA outsourcing now leading the way in growth. While outsourcing used to be a service only larger employers could afford, we are now seeing employers of all sizes outsourcing leave management. Technology has changed the cost equation. According to the 2016 DMEC Employer Leave Management Survey, even employers with fewer than 250 employees are outsourcing. The most common outsourced programs are state and federal FMLA. From FMLA, it is a natural leap to look for help managing ADA obligations. Medical information for documentation is similar for both laws, and will see this outsourcing trend continue in 2017.

Vendor Engagement

Vendor engagement emerged as a trend in 2016 and will come into its own this year with growing implementation of vendor summits. Vendor summits have been around for a long time, and they are especially popular with employers who contract with numerous vendors. Summits allow vendors to better learn the needs of employers and capabilities of other vendors. All concerned can step out of silos and look at absence and disability management in a holistic way. This can result in more efficiency and improved services. Summits help move relationships from “vendor” to “partner”, and we anticipate more employers will take this approach.

Workplace Mental Health

2016 witnessed both vendors and employers more focused on finding solutions to grow awareness of workplace mental health issues. At the 2016 DMEC Annual Conference, we dedicated a full-day preconference workshop to workplace mental health topics and discussion. More absence and disability management professionals, as well as health practitioners, understand the connection between the mind and body in absence, disability, and overall health. 2017 will see even greater efforts to develop and implement behavioral health strategies. Depression, stress, and other mental health issues are increasingly recognized as major concerns for employee well-being and performance, including absence. We hope to see less stigma toward mental illness through growing awareness and acceptance in workplaces through the country.

Absence Management Professionalization

Finally, we will continue to experience professionalization of absence and disability management in 2017. This has been and will continue to be driven by the growth and complexity of leave laws. The development and implementation of strategic and effective programs requires expertise of these laws and best practices to comply with them. In progressive companies, this translates into organization-wide cooperation that lets disability professionals collaborate across all departments.

Adding value in these circumstances requires continuous learning. Conferences, seminars, and professional designations like the new Certified Leave Management Specialist (CLMS) program give those in the field the tools to excel.

The labor market should continue to tighten in 2017. That means richer benefits, increased employee mobility, and higher costs for employers. Now more than ever, it is important for absence and disability management professionals to learn and use innovative skills and programs to help lower those costs. For those who do, 2017 should be a year of greater professional and personal rewards.