Available for those with permanent disability
If you have been injured on the job, and have filed a claim for compensation, in addition to lost wages and medical treatment, you may also be eligible for vocational rehabilitation. Perhaps you can no longer perform the job you used to do, but you may be able to do another type of job. If a work injury resulting in permanent disability of some sort prevents you from returning to your pre-injury employment, you may be eligible for vocational rehabilitation.
The goal of vocational rehabilitation is to minimize the injured worker’s disability and assist with a return to gainful work. Rehabilitation helps injured workers to become self-supporting and productive, and saves money by eliminating or reducing workers’ compensation payments. This helps not only with the economic side of an injury, but also with the psychological one – it is important to feel as if you are capable and contributing to the well being of your family.
What services are available?
The vocational services may include vocational assessment, aptitude and skills testing, counseling, job development, modification of your previous job, limited training when required, and job placement assistance. Each case is individual, and what is appropriate for one person may not be appropriate for another.
Who determines if I am eligible for a rehabilitation program?
The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, makes the determination of eligibility for a vocational rehabilitation program. The OWCP must determine whether you are permanently disabled and whether vocational rehabilitation is appropriate. This evaluation can begin when the medical record shows that the employee is likely to have some degree of permanent disability. The OWCP has vocational counselors it uses to analyze your particular situation.
Can I be forced into participation in a vocational rehabilitation program?
Participation in a vocational rehabilitation program is voluntary. That being said, the insurance company or employer may ask that your are evaluated by a vocational rehabilitation counselor to see whether there are jobs available either with the employer or in the open job market that you would be able to perform. If they request this evaluation, and if it is determined that you could do another job, then if you refuse to take a job that you would be able to do, there is a chance your benefits may be reduced.
How do I get started in a program?
The first step is that you, your attorney, employer or even the insurance company requests that the OWCP evaluate you for vocational rehabilitation services. This may occur when your doctor has determined that you are unable to return to your previous job, and that you are medically able to participate in a vocational rehabilitation program of some type.
You request this evaluation from the district office of the OWCP which is handling your case. The vocational counselor then reviews your records, looks at available options, talks with you about your skills and abilities. These vocational rehabilitation programs may be provided by public or private entities, but they must be approved by the OWCP.
Who pays for the program?
The OWCP has a Special Fund, which provides these services to the injured worker at no cost to the employee. The employer or insurance company may also pay for these services in certain cases, but they are under no legal obligation to do so. This scenario may occur if the employer really wants to keep the employee, and has a job available that the employee would be able to do with some additional training.
Additionally, if you are accepted into an OWCP-sponsored vocational rehabilitation program, public or private, you may be entitled to receive total disability compensation for the duration of the rehabilitation program. This usually occurs if your participation in the rehabilitation program prevents you from working full-time or part-time.
What if the new job doesn’t pay as well as the job on which I was hurt?
Under the LHWCA, permanent disability is broken down into two categories: scheduled and unscheduled. If you have scheduled disability, you will receive a standardized award specific to your physical impairment. If you have an unscheduled disability, you will receive an award, payable over the remainder of your life, which represents the difference between your ability to earn before your injury and your ability to earn after your injury.
Don’t ask for this too soon!
If you have recently been injured, it is probably not the best time to think about whether a vocational rehabilitation program might be the right thing to do. Wondering about this aspect of your situation might be premature. You should just focus on getting the proper medical treatment, recovering from the injury and filing the initial claim for compensation. You want to make sure that you don’t jump the gun on this, that you have sufficiently healed from the injury, and that this path is really an appropriate one for you. An attorney with experience in all the facets of the LHWCA will be able to guide you through the maze of regulations and options available to you. The attorney will be able to help you look at the nature and severity of your injury, whether the compensation you are entitled to is being paid, and whether (or not!) vocational rehabilitation is the right step for you.