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Vacation warriors return from trips with lasting memories and great photos, and often some unwanted trophies - sprained ankles, tennis elbows, exotic intestinal bugs. Even everyday life can go haywire if you end up needing an emergency appendectomy or wrench your back taking out the garbage.

When a few days of sick time does not cut it, you need to start filing paperwork.

Your employer might offer short-term disability that covers a percentage of your pay, but allow you to take half a vacation day to cover the remaining portion, or maybe a quarter day.

No doubt, it can be 100% confusing.

"And we haven't even talked about the Family and Medical Leave Act or other leave that you may qualify for," said Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner at Mercer, one of the leading benefit administrators.

Most employees get information about their workplace plans during their first days on the job, and then promptly forget the details, said Tori Weeks, director of workforce solutions at Unum Group, a benefit provider. They start to play catch-up by calling their manager or human resources only after they are sidelined by an illness or are about to deliver a baby.

Typically, large companies offer short-term disability policies that kick in after an elimination period of seven or eight days. After that, the worker files a claim and needs to provide medical documentation. The benefits typically last up to six months, with the average duration being 57 days, according to Unum. If a person is disabled after the policy ends, they transition to long-term disability, which happens in about 8% of cases.

Not all employers pay the full cost of the insurance premium - just 72% of large employers do, according to Mercer. Most do not offer full salary replacement - the average is 60% of pay.

Unpleasant surprises

The real surprise comes to those who think they have disability coverage through work but in fact do not. Only about 39% of U.S. workers have short-term disability coverage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while 33% have long-term disability coverage.

Calculator: How much disability income insurance do I need?

If your employer does not provide it, you can buy a private policy, but this is something most people do not think about until it is too late, said Kevin Haney, an insurance and benefits broker in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

The time to get insured is before you are sick or pregnant. "The level of financial illiteracy is strikingly bad," he said, referring to his typical caller. Rates will vary based on state regulations and one's personal details, but a typical policy can run around $125 a month.

Even workers who have coverage and think they are well-schooled in the rules can find a few surprises. For Cindy Rodriguez, a 30-year-old human resources administrator from Ithaca, New York, the one thing she wishes she had thought of was freezing her parking pass, since she could not drive during her recovery from a knee injury. But she was pleasantly surprised to find out that her work offered door-to-door transportation to get to meetings as she hobbled around on crutches.

Focusing on the little details like transportation can help speed people back to work, which is a top priority for companies, says Unum's Weeks. Many employers are now aggressively focusing on the return-to-work aspect.

But the No. 1 thing employers can do to speed along recovery costs just $1.

"Send a simple card," said Weeks. "It doesn't have to be big. You don't have to spend a lot of money. Just letting them know you care is enough."

There is actually scientific data to back this up, said Mercer's Fuerstenberg. He recalls a study that showed the factor that mattered most for getting people back to work was how many friends they had.

"We can talk about plan design all you want, but the single best indicator for successfully managing short-term disability is: how happy are your employees?" he said.