Navigating the Vocational Retraining Process After an Injury or Illness

It’s no secret that suffering an injury or succumbing to an illness can wreak havoc on your life. As you prioritize your physical recovery, you may also experience feelings of stress and anxiety due to the costly medical bills, lost wages, and other unanticipated expenses associated with your injury or illness. For many Washington workers, becoming unable to perform the duties required of them by their jobs can be concerning and discouraging. It’s common to feel financial anxiety during this challenging time, as well as a lack of purpose or fulfillment. Unexpected injuries and illnesses disrupt your daily routine, and you may find yourself wondering when (and if) you will be able to return to work. If you are looking to return to work after a prolonged absence due to injury or illness, vocational training may be a viable option for helping you achieve this goal. This post will explore what Washington State’s vocational retraining program entails, how you can qualify, and what types of benefits may be available. As you learn more about this service, you should consider discussing your unique goals with an experienced Seattle attorney to identify the most strategic path forward.

What is Vocational Rehabilitation?

Workers who have been unable to perform certain job requirements because of injury or illness often need support to ensure they are physically capable of returning to work. However, some workers have suffered injuries or illnesses that render them unable to return to work with their previous employer. They may have no transferable skills that allow them to return to their prior place of employment. In such instances, Washington law allows individuals to receive training in a line of work that’s different from the job they performed at the place of employment where the injury took place (see RCW 51.32.095). The goal is to provide injured workers who are no longer able to work in a particular industry or field (due to physical limitations or other restrictions stemming from injury or illness) with the training they need to find employment elsewhere in some capacity.

How Vocational Retraining Works in Washington

First, it’s important to understand that the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) cannot officially close your workers’ compensation claim until you return to work or it’s determined that you “are capable” of returning to work. Essentially, L&I offers vocational rehabilitation to ensure that injured or ill workers receive some type of training that makes them marketable in some capacity. As you start to explore your options for returning to work, you can expect to move through the following steps.

The Ability to Work Assessment

A vocational rehabilitation counselor (VRC) is someone who works for L&I (or a Self-Insured employer). The VRC’s role is to assess your ability to work and provide recommendations about your employability and employment future. When you meet with the VRC to complete the Ability to Work Assessment, you will discuss several topics, such as:

  1. Your age, education, work experience, and transferable skills

  2. Any preexisting physical or mental conditions that may impact your ability to work.

  3. The physical or mental conditions caused by your injuries or work-related illness.

  4. Any permanent medical restrictions arising from your injuries, your previous work pattern (i.e., full-time, part-time, seasonal, etc.),

  5. Any other relevant factors.

The VRC will use this report to determine whether you are currently employable, meaning you can return to work at any job with any employer and at any pay rate that you are qualified to perform based on the above-discussed factors. The VRC will send their assessment to your claims manager, which provides their recommendations for what steps may be necessary to take before you return to the workforce. It’s up to your claims manager to decide whether to refer you to a vocational rehabilitation program.

Qualifying for Vocational Retraining Services

You must meet several criteria before moving forward with vocational rehabilitation. First, it must be established that you are unable to return to work with your employer where the injury took place, be it in the same position or in a modified capacity, regardless of pay or benefits. This means that if you are physically capable of returning to your employer in some capacity, even at substantially lower pay than that you received at the time of your injury, you will not qualify for vocational retraining. Additionally, vocational retraining services are not available to people with sufficient transferable skills that allow them to re-enter the workforce in any gainful way. Vocational rehabilitation usually applies only to those who are not otherwise employable and would, therefore, benefit from some type of retraining services. If L&I approves you for vocational retraining, you and your VRC will create a retraining plan. As you make your decision, it’s best to consult with your VRC and other professionals before moving forward.

If you qualify for vocational retraining, your vocational rehabilitation counselor (VRC) will explain the vocational process to you. The VRC will work with you to develop a retraining plan aimed at helping you return to work. They will also help you understand your training options, including when and how you can elect the option you prefer.

Once L&I approves the training plan, you have 2 options:

  • Option 1 is to follow your L&I-approved plan and receive time-loss benefits while you complete your retraining plan.

  • Option 2 gives you the ability to develop a plan on your own.

For Option 1 or 2 training, you must use licensed, accredited, or L&I-approved schools or programs. L&I has resources to help you find these:

If you find a school or training program that isn’t licensed or accredited, it still may qualify.

If you choose Option 2

If you are a worker who has chosen Option 2, you can create your own vocational training plan. After we confirm your Option 2 election, we will:

  • End time-loss benefits.

  • Issue Option 2 benefits:

    • A vocational award (an amount of money usually equal to 9 months of time-loss compensation), and

    • Training funds to use for school.

  • Close the claim

You should speak with an attorney to evaluate whether Option 1 or 2 is best for you if you have a retraining plan that has been approved.

Protecting Your Best Interests at Every Turn

Although vocational rehabilitation may appear like a generous and beneficial benefit to injured workers, it’s essential to recognize that there are several potential drawbacks to this process. For instance, this “benefit” may be used as a tactic to justify paying you a much lower wage than the salary you enjoyed before you suffered an injury. As you move through this process, you must know that you have the right to dispute an L&I vocational decision. Unfortunately, many injured workers are unaware of their full range of legal rights and options in the face of these large corporate entities. Enlisting the guidance of a skilled and experienced workers’ compensation attorney is the best way to ensure that you obtain the most fair and favorable outcome possible. Your lawyer will remain at your side to answer your questions, address your concerns, and support you through every step of the claims process. Together, you can identify the most appropriate course of action to ensure that you find meaningful and gainful employment after your absence.

The dedicated and experienced legal team at Scott & Scott, PLLC, is here to help injured workers understand their rights and secure the compensation they deserve. Call our Seattle office today at (206) 622-2200 to speak with a knowledgeable and caring attorney.

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