If you’re in the process of working on your workers’ compensation claim or L&I claim, you might be eligible for vocational services. Vocational services are a somewhat complex benefit under the Industrial Insurance Act, because while other benefits are provided as a matter of right under the Act, vocational benefits are discretionary. This means that injured workers are provided with vocational benefits only if the Director exercises discretion to grant them vocational benefits. However, because the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) has conducted several studies that suggest injured workers remain off work for shorter periods of time when vocational services are provided earlier in claims, the current trend is for vocational assessment services to begin early in claims.
Vocational counselors perform vocational assessments. They are not L&I employees, but they are obligated to follow L&I’s rules and guidelines as they work through the vocational aspects of a claim. The return to work “priorities” that vocational counselors follow can be summarized as follows.
1) First, they determine if the injured worker is capable of returning to work at the job of injury with the employer of injury. If the job of injury isn’t available with the employer of injury but the injured worker is capable of performing the job, vocational counselors will look to the labor market to see if the job is available with another employer.
2) Second, if the injured worker cannot return to the job of injury, the vocational counselor determines whether there is a different job with the employer of injury that the injured worker can return to. If not, the vocational counselor looks at the injured worker’s skill set to determine if the injured worker possesses “transferable skills” to work on another job in the labor market that is within the injured worker’s abilities.
3) Third, if the injured worker cannot return to the job of injury and lacks transferable skills, the vocational counselor explores whether the injured worker can be retrained. In order to recommend retraining to the Department, the vocational counselor must believe that the injured worker can be provided with retraining over a two-year time period that will make them employable in their labor market. Assuming the vocational counselor believes retraining may be worthwhile, they will recommend that the Department approves plan development.
Next steps and actions
If the Department approves plan development, the vocational counselor will more formally assess the injured worker to determine the injured worker’s capabilities and interests for retraining. At this phase, I believe it is critical for injured workers to be invested and engaged. If a vocational counselor believes that retraining is a viable option, they must make the recommendation to the Department whether the injured worker likes the retraining goal or not. Therefore, injured workers should advocate for a retraining goal that would be satisfying and fulfilling to them.
There is no obligation to return an injured worker to a job that makes them as much as they were making at the time of injury. This is another source of angst and frustration for injured workers during the vocational process. The retraining plan can take up to 2 years and the injured worker should receive time-loss compensation for the entire time they are undergoing retraining.