By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Kellie Kuka, Return to Work Coordinator for CDCR’s Office of Employee Wellness (OEW), helped organize a recent statewide training conference along with co-organizer Rachel Young, also with OEW. This was the first major formal training for the coordinators since 2012. Inside CDCR caught up with Kuka to breakdown the importance of the conference as well as the Return to Work program and what future plans may include.

What is the significance of the Return to Work conference?

This conference brought together Return to Work Coordinators (RTWC) and others involved in the Return to Work process from CDCR locations statewide.  While the Office of Employee Wellness, Return to Work Services Section regularly provides training to new and seasoned RTWCs throughout the state, a formal training of this scale has not been held since 2012. RTWCs are challenged every day to think creatively in order to develop accommodation options unique to each employee’s need.  This conference provided in-depth information and training to equip our RTWCs to tackle those challenges and provide our employees with the best opportunity to continue working, despite medical restrictions which may have otherwise been career-ending.

Why is it important for the department or institutions and the employees?

CDCR’s goals for the Return to Work program are to keep employees productive in the work environment by eliminating barriers to employment for qualified individuals with disabilities, without waiving the essential functions of the positions; and to retain valued, experienced and qualified employees. When a CDCR employee is faced with a medical condition or disability, the RTWC steps in to make sure our employee understands all the options available to him/her.  The Return to Work process and options are not common knowledge among many employees, and RTWCs can be a lifeline to our employees who are unable to perform their jobs due to a medical condition. But this role as a Return to Work resource for CDCR’s employees is only half of a RTWC’s job; RTWCs are also responsible for protecting supervisors, managers, Hiring Authorities, and ultimately the Department, by providing Return to Work recommendations which ensure the employer’s obligations under Federal and State law are fulfilled and avoid potential costly litigation. Making sure our RTWCs are well-trained and equipped to compassionately assist employees and provide sound advice to management is crucial in accomplishing these goals.

What sorts of things do the coordinators learn?

The RTWC training was packed full of important information about the entire Return to Work process. Information was presented on a number of topics, such as the role of RTWCs, the Interactive Process and Reasonable Accommodation. While we have received consistently positive feedback on the entire training, one section of the training was by far the most popular with our RTWCs:  scenarios. RTWCs were provided with realistic Return to Work scenarios of varying complexity, and asked to map out a plan in small groups.  Each group then presented their plan, allowing for questions and discussion. This activity provided RTWCs with practical experience in applying the Department’s Return to Work policy. Another highlight of the training was an Interactive Process skit which was acted out by our Associate Director, Karen Moreno, and Return to Work Services Section Chiefs, Fran Conlin and Jan O’Neill, along with a few brave RTWCs who volunteered for the remaining roles. This skit presented examples of challenges RTWCs face when navigating the Interactive Process, and illustrated helpful responses, enabling the RTWC to continue the Interactive Process in good faith.

What was it like to be with so many coordinators at once?

It was wonderful to put faces to names, and have the opportunity to meet and interact directly with our field RTWCs.  With so many field locations, there are many RTWCs who I speak with almost daily, but had never met in person.  The training was met with enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm has carried over to comments and feedback we’ve received since the training.  We sent out an anonymous survey following the training. Here are some of the comments we received:

“This was the best conference I have been to in years.  Professional people taught us at a professional level.  The skits were well done!”

“The training provided was very helpful, very well put together, flowed nicely, had a great theme which made it fun!  The best RTW training I have EVER been to.”

“I’m fairly new to this arena so I GREATLY appreciate any info to help me perform my job to the best of my ability.”

“The joint effort of OEW and WC was very successful and informative.  Special thanks to the OEW staff for putting on a great training.”

What was it like to put something like this together? What sort of effort goes into it?

This was a joint training between Employee Health and Wellness’ Office of Employee Wellness (OEW) Return to Work Services Section and the Office of Legal Affairs Workers’ Compensation and Government Claims Team, with OEW taking the lead on this training session. Preparing for the RTWC training was a months-long endeavor which required collaboration between OEW management and the Office of Legal Affairs Workers’ Compensation management in order to schedule time for both topics, since many RTWCs in the field are responsible for both processes.  Additionally, the OEW Return to Work Services Section management and staff spent countless hours preparing materials, creating training packets, developing scenarios, writing a script for the Interactive Process skit, and making other arrangements to ensure the training at each of the three locations ran smoothly.

What’s the next step moving forward for the department? Are more trainings in the works and if so, what is a targeted time frame?

OEW’s plan is to continue providing these formal trainings on a regular basis, in addition to the one-on-one training we regularly provide to CDCR’s field RTWCs.  In the survey sent out after training, we requested feedback from attendees on how often they would like to receive these trainings.  We’re still analyzing the feedback in order to develop a future training plan, but it appears we will be scheduling our next training conference in the fall of 2017, with the Workers’ Compensation and Government Claims Team taking the lead.