By Attorney Jesse S. Shapiro
Vocational Rehabilitation is a multi-faceted process by which an injured worker with a compensable workers compensation claim receives assistance from a qualified or conditional rehabilitation professional in an attempt to return to the workforce after a disabling injury. Specifically in NC Workers Compensation cases, “Vocational Rehabilitation” refers to the delivery and coordination of services under an individualized plan, with the goal of returning an injured worker to “suitable employment.” Services can include assessment, job exploration, counseling, testing, job modification and job placement. Rehabilitation Professionals Rules, Rule III(E).
How Does Vocational Rehabilitation Work?
Under North Carolina General Statute § 97-32.2, vocational rehabilitation services can start at any time when a worker has either not returned to work in any capacity or has returned to a job but is earning less than 75% of his or her pre-injury wage. Although the law states that the vocational rehabilitation process can start at any point during the claim, it traditionally begins when an injured worker has been released to return to work with restrictions and the original employer cannot accommodate the restrictions or has terminated the injured worker from employment.
The Vocational Assessment
This is generally the first step in beginning the vocational rehabilitation process. The assessment is a meeting between the rehabilitation professional assigned to the worker, the injured worker and, if he or she has one, the workers’ attorney. The assessment should include a an evaluation of the workers’ expectations, an evaluation of any specific requests by the worker regarding medical and care or vocational training and a statement from the rehabilitation professional with a conclusion relative to the injured worker’s need for rehabilitation services, benefits expected and a description of the proposed vocational rehabilitation plan.
Meeting with an experienced workers compensation lawyer prior to an initial assessment can be of significant benefit. An attorney can help the worker think about requests, expectations and needs to establish a solid game plan heading into the meeting and initial assessment.
The Rehabilitation Plan
After the initial assessment, the rehabilitation professional develops an individual plan tailored to the injured worker’s specific needs, skills and goals as learned through the initial vocational assessment. North Carolina General Statute § 97-32.2 allows for the rehabilitation plan to be changed or updated at any time with mutual consent of the parties. Therefore, the worker can continually review the plan and suggest modifications during the entire course of the vocational rehabilitation process. The worker should also be afforded an opportunity to review the final draft of the original plan and make suggestions prior to the plan being finalized.
Job Placement Activities
Placement activities begin only after completion of the vocational assessment and finalization of the rehabilitation plan. Generally, the injured worker and rehabilitation professional meet on a weekly basis to discuss progress and work on developing skills to assist the worker in returning to the work force. Activities can include working on drafting an effective resume, assistance with job applications, working to establish on the job training, or even working on finding classes to obtain a GED or gain some basic computer skills.
Will Vocational Rehabilitation Pay for Education?
When a worker has either not returned to work in any capacity or has returned to a job but is earning less than 75% of his or her pre-injury wage, the worker can request education and retraining within the NC Community College and/or University system so long as the education and retraining is are reasonably likely to substantially increase the injured worker’s earning capacity following completion of the education or retraining.
What If I Find Work That Pays Less Than What I Was Earning Before My Injury?
If the injured worker has been offered a “suitable” job—it would be good to have an experienced attorney look at any job offers—benefits can continue for the worker via North Carolina General Statute § 97-30. Benefits paid here are calculated by looking at the difference in the average wage earned before the injury and the current wages earned and then taking 66 and 2/3 % of the difference between the two to calculate the weekly benefit. This can go on for up to 500 weeks; however, any weeks of benefits paid when the worker was totally disabled are deducted from the 500 weeks.
For example, a worker was earning $500.00 a week before her injury. After being hurt, she missed a year of work and received weekly benefits for that time period. She finds a new job earning $400.00 per week. Workers’ Comp will pay 66 2/3% of the difference ($66.67) for a period of up to 448 weeks. So the worker would get her paycheck plus $66.67/week from workers’ comp.
What Happens If I Do Not Comply With Vocational Rehabilitation?
If the rehabilitation professional thinks that there are issues of non-compliance, he or she must advise all parties and inform them what is needed to come back into compliance with the rehabilitation plan. If there is continued failure to comply, the Industrial Commission can enter an order compelling compliance and eventually a worker could be looking at a termination of weekly benefits.
If you are on vocational rehabilitation and receive a non-compliance notice, you should contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney immediately.