In Washington State, a worker injured on the job must return to work, or be found able to return to work, before the workers’ compensation claim can be closed. Vocational services may be needed to facilitate a return to work. In rare cases where the worker remains permanently unable to work, a total disability pension may be awarded.
The Department of Labor and Industries (DLI) is not required to find the injured worker a job, but is required to document that the worker has the ability to obtain and maintain employment. DLI is not required to return a worker to their pre-injury earnings, either. Minimum wage or better is all that’s needed to establish employability.
How Vocational Services Work
If an injured worker cannot return to their job of injury, a vocational counselor (VRC) is assigned. The VRC will research options to determine if the worker has the skills and physical ability to perform a modified job with the same employer or, if not, another job within the general labor market. This ability to work assessment follows WAC 296-19A-065 as it’s foundation.
The information provided to workers entering the ability to work assessment phase can be found, here.
If the worker does not possess the skills and abilities to obtain and maintain employment after an injury, vocational retraining services can be provided to return the worker to employability. The claim progresses to a Plan Development phase, during which specific retraining goals are evaluated.
Retraining benefits under a workers’ compensation claim are generally limited to two years and a budget of $18,660.46, total, for tuition and expenses. Time loss compensation continues to be paid under the claim while the worker is participating in retraining.
Possible retraining plans that fall within the time limit and budget and that lead to a job that is medically appropriate and is likely to result in the worker obtaining employment can be on the table.
There Are Options
Once a retraining plan is offered to an injured worker, they have a choice to make – whether to participate in the plan, known as Option 1, or to opt out and pursue other training or schooling on their own – Option 2. The worker can begin the plan and then change their mind, within defined time limits.
DLI has detailed information about training options, here.
How Legal Representation Can Help
We believe that we get the best outcomes when we are involved in a claim early in the return-to-work evaluation process.
There can be disagreements about a worker’s actual physical abilities and stamina, which are both important factors in an accurate determination of their ability to return to full employment. There can be disagreements about the worker’s transferable skills and whether they support their ability to return to work. There also can be disagreements about a worker’s ability to benefit from retraining services.
These and other disagreements over vocational conclusions can lead to disputes, protests, appeals and, sometimes, litigation. Determinations are often reached quickly. The deadline for filing a vocational determination dispute is very short – 15 days. While we are willing to get involved in cases at any stage, it is more difficult to address the many facets of a vocational determination late in the process.
If you have questions about vocational services, feel free to contact us. We would be happy to discuss the specific details of your case with you.
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