What Is Vocational Rehabilitation? And How Can It Benefit Workers’ Comp?
Vocational rehabilitation is a service originally intended to help injured employees reenter the workforce after suffering an injury or disability. If a worker is injured on the job and is unable to perform his or her job duties properly, Vocational Rehabilitation (or Voc Rehab) can help the injured worker find a new job or train for a new career. Unfortunately, Voc Rehab can sometimes be abused by insurance companies looking to find a way to stop paying Workers’ Compensation Benefits. Used properly, the Voc Rehab process can greatly help an injured worker. But an injured worker must also be wary of the Voc Rehab system being used as an excuse to suspend or terminate benefits the injured worker should be entitled to.
What Does Vocational Rehabilitation Involve?
Different services are appropriate for different workers according to the situation, but Voc Rehab typically begins with the assignment of a Voc Rehab Professional (VRP). The VRP will schedule an initial meeting with the injured worker and his or her attorney. The VRP will want to review the injured worker’s job history, education, and background (all the info typically contained on a resume), as well as the injured worker’s doctor’s restrictions (e.g., “No Lifting more than 15 lbs.). They will also often go over initial “testing” with the injured worker. This testing can include reading and math testing, but typically focuses more on interests (e.g. “Do you like working with others, or working on projects by yourself? Do you like working with your hands?”). The VRP will also inquire about the injured worker’s personal life situation, (“Do you drive?” “Are you flexible on work hours or can child care be an issue?”).
After the testing is concluded, the VRP will compile a report that is shared with the worker’s insurance compensation carrier and the worker’s attorney. It will usually address:
- Current skills evaluation
- Assistance adapting to a different job in the same field
- Job placement with the same or a different employer
- Career counseling
- Help with résumé and cover letter writing
- Job training (for existing or new job)
- Additional job-related education
- Assistance determining an ideal work environment
- Help obtaining specialized training or certifications
Most vocational rehabilitation programs will create a customized plan for each injured worker, structured around the employee’s individual injury, disabilities, skills, and limitations. The rehabilitation plan may help the employee adapt to a new type of job in the same workplace, such as a new position on an assembly line that does not require bending or lifting for a worker with a strained back. The plan could also help the injured worker with disability accommodations or create a plan to obtain a brand-new position under a new employer.
Once the initial plan is created, the worker’s attorney and the insurance company will agree upon a plan forward. Typically, this involves a regularly scheduled series of meetings and assignments for the injured worker to complete in between these meetings. These assignments can include looking for jobs, attended classes, or anything else that might be appropriate to help the injured worker secure a job.
Eligibility for Vocational Rehab Through Workers’ Comp
Vocational rehabilitation can be life-changing for workers with serious personal injuries. Many worker’s compensation claimants spend years in the system, collecting checks and remaining out of work. Some never return to gainful employment. The Voc Rehab system as designed benefits both the injured worker and the insurance company. By spending money on a qualified VRP, the insurance company can save itself from having to pay an injured worker for years or even decades. And the injured worker, rather than collecting checks and sitting on the couch, can find gainful employment with opportunities for advancement. Rather than the workplace injury ending the worker’s career, he or she will have the chance to continue working at a fulfilling job and earning an income, along with benefits like health insurance.
Unfortunately, some insurance companies use the VRP system as a pretext to try and suspend or terminate benefits. The law in North Carolina states that refusing vocational rehab services when the Industrial Commission orders them will bar the worker from further compensation. It is not uncommon for insurance companies to assign a VRP, then use the VRP’s reports as a pretext to try to suspend or terminate the injured worker’s entitlement to disability checks. Essentially, the insurance company will argue that the injured worker has failed to comply with assignments from the VRP and that he or she should stop receiving weekly disability checks.
Therefore, it is very important to work with the VRP, and to document all steps taken at the request of a VRP. It is also important to have an attorney on your side through the VR process because if the insurance company attempts to suspend or terminate benefits, it may be too late to hire an attorney in time to avoid a suspension. Having an attorney who already knows your situation can allow them to react quickly to respond to any motions to suspend benefits. Or even better, an attorney can guide you and ensure that you are not being set up by an unscrupulous VRP or insurance company and avoid any situation where you could credibly be accused of not complying with vocational efforts.
However, the VR process can also be very beneficial to an injured worker. Many times, injured workers are the ones asking for VR services. If the employee has not returned to work or has returned but earns less than 75% of previous wages, the worker often would benefit from retraining and re-education. The employer is required to pay the costs of vocational rehabilitation the same as it would medical expenses for a workplace injury. This can include school tuition, books, and even mileage to and from class.
Vocational Rehabilitation In Non-Workers’ Compensation Settings
While Voc Rehab is usually seen in the Worker’s Compensation System, it can also be of great benefit in other cases as well. Our firm often retains VRPs in auto accident claims in order to document the full effects of an accident on an injured victim. For example, if a person is injured in a car accident and spends three weeks out of work, obviously that victim should be entitled to recoup those lost wages. But what about future losses? What if the victim cannot drive long distances without suffering recurrences of back pain, and this limits his ability to earn money in the future? This can be harder to document and calculate. A VRP can help. We have even used VRPs with spouses’ earnings. For example, we recently represented an individual whose wife had to turn down a promotion because she would not have been able to drive her husband to his therapy appointments. With the help of a qualified VRP, we were able to recover these losses for both our client and his wife.
Discussing Vocational Rehabilitation With Your Employer
If you recently suffered a job-related injury that led to missed work, a disability, or the inability to return to your previous position, discuss vocational rehabilitation with your employer. These services can help you obtain a fulfilling job position after a serious personal injury, and most likely will not cost anything out-of-pocket under your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance. Your employer lawfully must make information regarding workers’ comp benefits available to employees upon request.