Mitigating workers’ comp claims

The leisure and hospitality industry has experienced substantial employee attrition in recent years, and many workers report no plans to return to the industry. Two major threats to the successful recovery of the hospitality sector are worker illness and injury—factors that could not only prevent the already reduced workforce from returning, but also lead to workers’ compensation claims. 

In 2020, the hotel and motel industry experienced 11,320 nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Narrowing down incidents affecting the hospitality space, Liberty Mutual in its 2021 Workplace Safety Index estimated that the most common injury cases were slips, trips and falls and sprains and strains, accounting for more than $2.81 billion in costs.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic also helped to shine a light on the reality that hotel employees are at high risk for exposure to infectious viruses and diseases.

To keep workers safe, avoid injuries and illness and reduce hotel workers’ compensation claims, hotel owners and operators may want to consider implementing proactive safety and health initiatives, coupled with empathetic management tactics to reduce the costs associated with these incidents. 

Understanding the Risks

When looking to reduce employee injury risks, hotel owners and operators will want to look for patterns in the areas most reported in workers’ comp claims. These include:  

  • Slips, trips and falls: Whether staff is cleaning hotel lobby floors on a rainy day, mopping a bathroom or working in a kitchen, there are many areas of a property that could pose risks for slips, trips and falls. These types of fall-related injuries were reported by Liberty Mutual to account for 34.6 percent of workers’ compensation claims.  
  • Sprains and strains: Employees are often tasked with heavy lifting, including moving luggage or making a bed. Done incorrectly, these tasks can result in injury. Additionally, any workers tasked with jobs of a repetitive nature, such as vacuuming and cleaning, may find these activities can lead to a variety of strains and sprains. 
  • Cleaning hazards: In addition to repetitive task-related injuries, housekeeping workers are also particularly prone to chemical exposure leading to health and respiratory injuries. Any workers tasked with cleaning or balancing the chemicals in the hotel pool or spa are also at risk for elevated chemical exposure and possible injury. 
  • Viruses and diseases: Due to the transient nature of hotel guests, staff are often at risk for increased exposure to viruses and illnesses from COVID-19 and influenza to MRSA and Monkeypox. 

Turning Lemons into Lemonade: Lessons from the Pandemic

The hotel industry was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Hotel & Lodging Association reports hotels are just beginning to recover from a collective loss of $111.8 billion in room revenue experienced across 2020 and 2021. When employees were able to return to work, industry leaders placed a strong emphasis on mitigation implementing tactics such as employee and guest masking mandates, social distancing markers, handwashing, plexiglass barriers and other tactics. However, notably, there was also a change in management style implemented among many employers: More hoteliers are now managing with compassion and empathy. Today, good management encourages employees to return to work only when feeling healthy—placing a new emphasis on employee health and wellness. 

Compassion and empathy is a welcome development but hotel managers can do more to protect their employees:

  • Consult a third-party expert. Hotel operators might consider bringing in a third-party to review the hotel’s cleaning procedures and safety equipment. An outside, credentialed organization that specializes in sanitation can properly evaluate if the cleaning solutions, chemicals and procedures employed by the hotel to clean and sanitize its spaces, both public and private, are adequate to the infectious threats faced by modern hospitality organizations. The same is true of housekeeping personal protective equipment. Communicating these efforts to the hotel staff might also reduce the property’s risk exposure as well as improve the feeling among employees that they are supported and protected.
  • Look to other industries for best practices. For the hotel industry, there are lessons to be learned from the construction industry. Among developers and builders, there is a common practice known as toolbox talk where safety is discussed daily or weekly to address hazard concerns, share best practices or reinforce safety regulations and requirements. According to the 2021 Safety Performance Report published by the Associated Builders and Contractors, these types of proactive safety practices can significantly lower on-the-job incidents and injuries. As hotel employees face numerous safety challenges in their day-to-day tasks, hotel managers might consider taking a similar approach and discussing concerns with staff regularly. Hoteliers should consider creating an open dialogue on workplace concerns and request feedback on areas where employees feel health and safety can be improved. 

When workers feel their safety is prioritized, employee morale rises, and the risk of workplace injuries and illness can be reduced. In fact, a paper published in The International Journal of Hospitality Management in 2017 found that creating a work environment with a focus on employee health and safety could reduce further costs related to workers’ compensation and insurance. 

How to Handle Claims and Return to Work

As we know, accidents happen. And when they do, hotel managers have a key role in ensuring their employees’ needs are met and workers’ compensation claims are handled properly. 

The key to smoothly handling workers’ comp claims is clear and consistent communication among all the players. This includes the injured employee, human resources, the property’s risk manager as well as legal counsel. The goal of all parties should always be to ensure an employee’s wellness and safe return to work.  

While an employee is out on medical leave, human resource personnel and hotel managers will want to consider periodic check-ins with the worker to offer appropriate employer assistance. This regular engagement is important as studies suggest the likelihood of an employee returning to work declines the longer they are out. 

After a claim has been handled and an employee is ready to return to work, there are various capacities in which said employee may be able to work. Understanding the different levels can help hotel operators and managers better anticipate and fulfill the needs of their injured employees.

  • Cleared for Action: Often, workers’ comp injuries and illnesses are resolved with a short treatment regime. The employee may quickly return to work and hotel management can expect minimal costs associated with the claim. Once the hotel’s human resources team receives medical clearance from the employee’s doctor, the team will review the case and work responsibilities to determine if any duty restrictions should be implemented, such as reducing lifting weight or adding more rest opportunities. 
  • Light Duty: Some employees may need to return to work in a “light duty” position. Light duty roles are typically temporary but can be permanent and will have less physical and mental demands than typical roles. In this case, it is important to clearly define the details of the day-to-day job responsibilities and physical demands in which the employee is expected to perform. 
  • Unable to Return to Work: If it is determined an employee can no longer return to work, the hotel’s workers’ compensation insurance typically covers medical treatment of the injury and indemnity of two-thirds of the claimant’s weekly salary. These claims can be costly and vary based on other factors such as the employee’s work history, age, background and past injuries. 

The past few years have presented hotel operators and their staff with numerous challenges. With proactive safety measures, an emphasis on empathetic management styles and good legal counsel specializing in workers’ compensation, hotel managers and operators will be better equipped to mitigate and manage hotel worker injury and illness claims when they arise.

Sarah Thomas is managing partner at Jones Jones LLC.