When Sherry Meyer injured her wrist two years ago, her doctors told her there was no way she could return to the production line at Herman Miller Inc.'s furniture manufacturing plant where she had been cutting and packing wood veneer.
"I was the sole support for my three children and all of the sudden I faced the question of how I was supposed to support them," she recalled. "I was really frightened," she added, because she feared that with only a high-school education, she would not find another job.
But thanks to a special rehabilitation and retraining program that had just begun at Herman Miller, Meyer was offered a chance to work in the audio-visual department, showing films to the company employes, customers and dealers. "I had never even turned on a projector," she said.
Today, Meyer is the company's full-time projectionist who not only runs the projector but also does some videotaping for the company.
Similarly, when a material handler at the factory dislocated his shoulder, thus making it impossible for him to lift anything higher than his shoulders, it looked as if he would be out of a job permanently. But the company started looking for other jobs for him. Today, the former laborer is a computer operator, drawing detailed design layouts for the company. "He is so good, people are fighting over his services," noted Steve Fowler, Zeeland's plant manager.
These are two of the nearly 300 success stories Herman Miller has experienced since it opened its Transitional Work Center two-and-a-half years ago. The center is one of a handful of corporate rehabilitation centers across the country designed to bring injured or disabled workers back to work quickly, even if the workers are not able to return to their old jobs.
At Herman Miller, "restricted" workers -- the company adamently refuses to use the words "disabled" or "handicapped" even if an employe has received a permanent crippling injury -- are encouraged to return to work as soon as they are medically able. If an employe eventually will be able to go back to his or her old job, he or she will be given lighter tasks -- ranging from stuffing envelopes to driving a van from factory to factory to pick up parts -- until the employe's doctor says the patient is ready to return to the old job full-time.
However, if an employe cannot return to the old job, then instead of sending the worker home with disability compensation, the company will find a new job for the worker that will meet all the medical restrictions -- without any salary reduction. And training will be provided if necessary.
Herman Miller "is on the frontier of helping its workers who become disabled during their employment, whether or not the disability was incurred through employment," noted Sheila Akabas, director of the Industrial Social Welfare Center of the Columbia University School of Social Work.
Herman Miller gives a high priority to employe morale and involvement in the business, and sees its approach to disabled workers as an extension of that concern.
Traditionally, Akabas noted, companies have tended to pay little attention to their disabled workers, encouraging them to retire early instead of trying to adapt jobs to fit their needs.
"Faced with exceedingly costly disability payments, many companies are now wondering whether it would be better to accommodate these people at the workplace rather than pay these people off," she noted.
Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M) launched a rehabilitation program "because the company has an obligation to its employes -- they are our best resource," said Deborah Beaudway, 3M's rehabilitation counselor.
But beyond that, she noted, "it's good business and saves the company a lot of money." Beaudway noted that it takes time and money to find, hire and train a person for a job. Thus, when illness, injury or emotional problems prevent an employe from performing a job, the company loses its investment; it faces insurance costs for the disabled employe, and then must hire and perhaps train a replacement.
"Rather than having employes sitting at home, let's make them productive employes; rather than paying them compensation, let's put them on salary," Beaudway said.
Currently, 3M is spending about $6,000 to install a mechanical lift and redo a restroom in one of its plants for a worker who was seriously injured in an automobile accident two years ago. Now a quadraplegic who gets around in a motorized wheelchair, the employe will be working at a computer terminal nearby.
"This is good to do for everyone," said Beaudway, noting that such actions greatly improve staff morale. Yet, she added, it also is in the company's self-interest.
Adolph Coors Co. estimates that it has saved a total of $10 million during the four years its rehabilitation center has been operating. The company has treated more than 1,800 workers with short-term health problems and 166 employes with long-term disabilities. More than 80 percent of the employes it has treated have returned to work, the company says.
Among them was a young female construction worker who fell from a 30-foot platform and suffered multiple orthopedic injuries. The company put her through secretarial training and she now is an administrative coodinator for a construction group. In another instance, a young iron worker began suffering from a neurological disease that made it impossible for him to work at his original job. He is now in charge of a tool room nearby.
According to the Menninger Foundation's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, worker disabilities cost the U.S. economy more than $56 billion annually, and every year more than 400,000 workers sustain injuries or illnesses that disable them for a least one month. Approximately half of these people never return to work, although half of them will live for more than 10 years. Of those people who eventually do return to work, 40 percent are off work for more than a year," concluded a new study by the center.
The costs are certain to grow as the current labor force ages. "By the turn of the century, one-half of the U.S. population will be physically disabled, chronically ill or over 65 years of age," the center concluded. "This puts a heavy burden on active workers in the remaining half of the population . As this date draws near, keeping as many people as possible able and working will become even more important not only to individuals, but also to the American economy." The able workers must support the Social Security benefits of the retired and disabled.
"Our average age of the laborer on the floor is 22 to 25. So, if someone is young and gets hurt, we have a long-term buy-in," said Ken Wright Jr., head of Herman Miller's Transitional Work Center.
Edward J. Hester, director of the Menninger Center, noted it has not been easy to convince employers and employes about the need for a rehabilitation program. While many employers question its cost and effectiveness, employes are equally skeptical, fearful that such programs are really an effort to deprive them of benefits they feel they have earned, Hester said: "There is a general feeling out in the workplace that if a person is disabled, it is his right to collect disability benefits -- he has earned them.
"Also, in areas where there are layoffs, many workers believe they should stay at home and collect disability and not deprive other people of working," he said.
Nonetheless, rehabilitation programs are beginning to catch on, partly because a growing number of states are enacting laws requiring companies to retrain workers injured on the job.
The key to success, Hester and other rehabilitation experts say, is early contact with injured employes to encourage them to return to the workplace as soon as possible, even if they are working fewer hours or at a different job -- or both.
"If someone with a back injury is out of work for a year, there is only a 20 percent chance of him or her returning to work," noted Dr. Bernard Meeuwsen, Herman Miller's medical director.
As a result, Meeuwsen gets in touch with an employe's doctor as soon as it has been reported by the employe's supervisor that the worker is off because of a medical problem.
After the employe's doctor has outline the restrictions his patient must follow, Herman Miller sends a job evaluation specialist to the worker's post to see if the injured employe can do his or her old job -- or one in the same division -- while still meeting the doctor's orders. If not, Meeuwsen sends the employe to the Transitional Work Center where Wright spends several hours interviewing the employe to see if there is another job in the company that he or she could perform.
Wright came to his present job with no special rehabilitation training. He had been captain of a corporate yacht, a job he believes helped him learn a lot about people -- and also caused him not to have preconceived notions about how a work transition program should be run.
When Herman Miller appointed him to the new post, Wright visited a nearby company that already had a rehabilitation program. "There, the company had cut the employe's pay in half and had put all of the restricted workers in a fenced-in area in the production floor where they sorted parts. The employes had three months to make rehabilitation work -- or they were out the door. It was all an effort to intimidate people back to work," Wright said.
Learning what not to do, Wright returned to Herman Miller and set up a small but cheerful office in an out-of-the-way place where "restricted" workers could come and talk while working temporarily at tasks such as stuffing envelopes with shareholders' statements.
For the most part, the bulk of the 330 employes who have reported to Wright have been temporarily disabled, with a broken hand or leg or an injured back or wrist. During the few months it takes to recover, the workers frequently are sent to other departments that need additional workers -- thereby saving money by not requiring the company to hire outside temporary help.
For other workers with long-term injuries, brand-new jobs are found at the plant. So far, Wright said, he has been able to place everyone who has come through his program at other corporate jobs -- although not all the jobs have been perfect fits, he acknowledged.
Overall, Wright said the transitional work center has saved the company about $500,000 in disability payments, days of leave and the costs of having to hire temporary help. It also has cut down on employe legal suits.
"In the past, when a laborer was restricted, supervisors didn't want to deal with them; they would put them in a corner someplace and do some menial job, like sorting screws. That aggravated people and led to lawsuits," Wright said. "The center is designed to make people feel good about themselves, and useful to the company."
As a result, noted Zeeland's plant manager Fowler, the company has no worker's compensation suits pending now. And when they do come up, judges take dim views of workers' complaints if they have not worked with the Transitional Work Center, Wright noted.
Still, not all the company has been supportive of the center, Fowler noted. "Some employes see the center as an outlet for miscontents and freeloaders," he said.
Yet, as more and more employes benefit from it, there is growing support for it -- so much so that many employes now are frequently pressured to return to work earlier than they should by peers who point to other colleagues who have returned quickly as the result of assistance by the center, medical director Meeuwsen said.