Absence Management: A Conversation with Brandon Casten from Cigna

Many employers struggle with creating an ideal employee leave process that is compliant and easy for employees to understand. I recently discussed this with Brandon Casten, Cigna’s Group Life & Disability Insurance Executive, and he provided insights into the elements of an employee leave/absence management program.

What do you consider the most critical element of a strong absence management program?

In developing a strong absence management program the primary concern is compliance with the law and consistency across all business divisions. While this sounds rudimentary, compliance has become very difficult because of the changing landscape of state, federal and even local leave laws. Thirteen states and D.C. had FMLA variations before New York passed the Paid Family Leave Law in January, and there are other states currently considering similar legislation. In addition, the ADA has evolved and leave has become one of the most common leave types employers approve.

These challenges make it increasingly difficult for multi-state employers to stay ahead of the legislation and make it even tougher on the supervisors. The direct supervisor plays a key role in the leave process and is often removed from the centralized HR team, making compliance and consistency challenging. The risks are significant, with the average FMLA lawsuit in the $80,000 range.

Because of these complexities, multi-state employers are commonly seeking help with administration from insurance companies, third party administrators and legal experts. These experts in the law can help employers navigate the complexities and changes that directly impact their workforce.

Compliance is most definitely key. Once we’re well versed in the leave laws impacting our organization, where should we direct our attention next?

The next level of absence management is understanding the true organizational costs and taking steps to reduce them. While there are a lot of soft-dollar costs in this analysis, even the direct costs (such as finding replacement workers) warrant significant consideration by HR and Finance teams. While there are a lot of great self-service legal and compliance resources, the organizational cost to significantly reduce absence expenses usually exceed the budgetary capabilities of a company. For this reason, professional management of an absence program through an insurance carrier or TPA is an option for consideration. I hesitate to call this “outsourcing,” as it still requires active HR management of the program, but this is an efficient and consistent way to administer an absence program.

If a company is not able to invest in an absence program, how would you recommend they assess their current program?

If a company wants to keep their absence program in house, this is achievable by taking some important steps. First, HR should take the time to develop a deep understanding of your organizational liabilities lie. This paves the way to make the necessary changes to administer a program in house. This kind of audit would need to be done annually at a minimum because of how often laws change, but ideally it would be conducted quarterly. Once the liabilities are identified, solutions can be developed. For example, if supervisors are the issue when it comes to an employee leave, providing them with regular training will help to minimize concerns. If communication with employees is the issue, gaining feedback from employees who have taken leave can help to build a stronger communication plan before, during and after the leave.

Are there any specific concerns an employer should consider when developing their program?

Other than the items already discussed, I think a huge consideration is to understand how the various options of absence management mesh with your culture. Some companies want to be very hands on with their employees, while others would prefer to have a third party handle leave management. Some companies are in one location or state, while others have a lot of customized leave plans. If you take the time to assess where your absence management program is now, identify your potential liabilities and consider solutions that fit your company culture and employee experience, you’ll be on a path to ensure leaves are handled properly in accordance with all regulations.

Thank you for your time Brandon.

My pleasure. This is an important topic, and I’m glad to lend my thoughts to help employers with it.