Introduction and context
Today’s post in the series about vocational benefits in workers’ compensation claims and L&I claims is about “Plan Development”. Plan Development is a big, and somewhat complex topic. Today’s post will be one of several on this topic. During Plan Development the assigned vocational counselor attempts to identify a retraining goal and plan for retraining to submit to the Department of Labor and Industries for approval. Vocational counselors are given 90 days to complete this phase. However, with proper documentation, the vocational counselor can request extensions of time for completing plan development.
According to WAC 296-19A-100, at the completion of the Plan development phase, the vocational counselor must either (1) submit a vocational rehabilitation plan addressing the return to work priorities, the reason retraining is needed, and outlining significant details regarding the likelihood of success for the plan; or (2) submit a closing report explaining why Plan Development must stop prior to plan approval together with a plan development closing report explaining why plan development cannot continue.
Pros and cons and various considerations
In my experience, in the absence of significant extenuating circumstances, the Plan Development process usually concludes with submission of a retraining plan for the Department’s approval. I have to be honest that as a workers’ compensation attorney representing injured workers in Washington State, I have very mixed emotions about vocational services and Plan Development in particular.
On the one hand, under the Industrial Insurance Act, vocational rehabilitation is a significant benefit since retraining plans can last up to two years at a cost of little over $17k, with time-loss compensation paid for the entire retraining period. Essentially, it is a two-year, full ride scholarship plus a living stipend. When done well under the right circumstances, a vocational retraining plan can give an injured worker a new lease on life; a second chance at a fulfilling career.
In my personal opinion, I believe there is an over-emphasis on finding that an injured worker is theoretically employable, and not enough emphasis on actual employment. In short, the Department’s criteria for a retraining plan to be approved is that it must look good on paper. The injured worker must be physically capable of performing the retraining goal job, the injured worker must have the aptitudes for retraining, and the retraining goal job must exist sufficiently in the labor market. An injured worker’s actual interest in the retraining goal job, the wages the job will ultimately pay, whether the job provides future growth potential, and actual job placement are not considerations for plan approval and employability determinations.
Plan development – What to expect
As a result of the above, outcomes of the Plan Development process can vary significantly for injured workers involved in retraining plans. Some injured workers receive the chance of a lifetime to be retrained to a job they want, so they can move on with a new and fulfilling work life. However, other injured workers struggle to keep up with the demands of academically challenging retraining plans designed to make them employable in uninteresting and unmotivating job goals they feel have been oppressively imposed upon them.
For this reason, I often advise injured workers to be ultra-invested in participating in the Plan Development process. In my experience, the more engaged and invested injured workers are in the plan development process, the more likely it is that a satisfying retraining goal will be submitted for approval.