Disability Employment: Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work


Man in a wheelchair on the phone at a construction site


Millions of workers experience an injury, illness or change in disability status every year, either on or off the job, resulting in missed working days. Stay-at-work/return-to-work (SAW/RTW) policies consider strategies to retain or reengage workers who undergo these changes, with the goal of returning workers to the labor force quickly. Stay-at-work and return-to-work policies can support all workers as they continue in their careers and as new challenges present themselves.

State Policy Options

A bipartisan task force of legislative and executive officials convened in 2016 to create a policy framework for increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The task force identified the following policy options relating to keeping ill and injured workers in the workforce or returning them to the workplace shortly thereafter, a strategy known as staying-at-work/returning-to-work.

Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Programs 

States can adopt SAW/RTW programs and financial incentives in the private and public sectors to support employee retention in the event of injury, illness or a change in status of an individual’s disability. 

  • Adopt SAW/RTW programs in the private and public sectors.
  • Help businesses and individuals with disabilities navigate the complexities of benefits.
  • Explore opportunities to supplement existing financial incentives to target disability employment supports.

Recent State Actions

Since 2016, at least states 19 have enacted legislation related to the policy options listed under the Staying-at-Work section of the Work Matters Policy Framework. NCSL's disability employment legislative database features a comprehensive list of introductions and enactments. Included below are some of the legislative highlights:

SAW/RTW Programs

New Jersey's SB 844 (2018) creates a partial return-to-work program by offering qualified injured workers temporary disability insurance. Oregon's Employer-at-Injury Program is similar to Washington's Stay-at-Work program and provides employers with wage subsidies, reimbursement for worksite modifications and other accommodation costs to help employees stay at work. Oregon's Preferred Worker Program is targeted to employers who hire injured workers. 

Financial Incentives

Montana HB 288 (2019) expands the definition of qualified family members who are eligible for tax deductions for contributions to ABLE accounts.

South Carolina, through HB 3768 (2015), allows for a deduction from state income tax liability for all contributions made to any ABLE account in South Carolina or a qualifying account located in other state up to the maximum federal limit ($14,000) for ABLE account contributions.


  • Transition Back to Work: Policies to Support Return to Work after Illness or Injury: This paper examines nine policy options related to supporting transitions back to work. These best practices can be implemented at the state and federal level, including the private sector, to minimize worker disengagement and decreased productivity after illness or injury.
  • Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact: This study from the Job Accommodation Network, finds that the benefits of workplace accommodations to facilitate an employee's return to work outweigh the average monetary cost of provision. Among these benefits are retaining valuable employees, improving productivity and morale, reducing workers’ compensation and training costs, and improving company diversity. 
  • Return-to-Work: A Foundational Approach to Return to Function: Successfully returning an employee to work requires not only a comprehensive policy infrastructure, but stakeholder action and coordination. This paper outlines the major actors involved in the transition back to work and their respective roles in ensuring timely worker return. 

Saige Draeger is a research analyst in NCSL's Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.

Additional Resources