Vocational Rehabilitation Rights for North Carolina Workers

Posted on Thursday, June 27th, 2019 at 10:21 am    

Workers who can’t return to their old job may be entitled to vocational rehabilitation benefits. Vocational rehab benefits can include the cost of being retrained or to obtain additional education.

In most North Carolina workers compensation cases, injured and ill workers are compensated in two ways:

  • They are compensated for their medical bills. These are the hospital, doctor, and therapy bills the worker’s care medical providers are due – for helping the worker return to work to maximize their health. Medical bill payments also include the cost of drugs and medical devices.
  • They are paid for a portion of their lost wages. Generally, workers are paid 2/3rds of their average weekly wages up to 500 weeks. There are adjustments in the pay depending on whether the worker has a total or partial disability – i.e., whether the worker can return to a lower paying job with work restrictions, or remains totally disabled from work. 

Some workers, however, are not able to return to their pre-injury job because of their injuries or work-related illness. Sometimes, the worker’s doctor will authorize work with restrictions, otherwise referred to as “light duty,” – but the employer won’t be able to accommodate the restrictions. Since the goal of workers’ compensation is to help the worker earn an income, North Carolina offers another option called vocational rehabilitation.

For example, often workers who work in construction or industry depend on being physically fit to do hard physical labor. If a worker severely injures his or her back, loses function in a hand, or loses an arm; the worker can no longer do these jobs. With proper education, though, the worker could be re-trained to work in a clerical or administrative job. The worker might be able to learn technical skills that could be useful to many companies in the same job sectors or different job sectors altogether. 

Of course, the success of much of this depends on the age and current educational level of the injured worker. A 29-year-old worker is far more likely to be capable of re-training than a 59-year old laborer without a high school education. Usually, the injuries are more severe and pronounced in the older worker, and as they say, it is harder to teach an old dog new tricks. 

How vocational rehabilitation is defined

Worker’s compensation includes services that are designed to help a worker obtain suitable employment. These services typically include:

  • An assessment of the workers job skills, education, and abilities.
  • Determining what type of new job the worker could do if he/she was properly trained.
  • Reviewing the skills, degrees, and certifications that could help the worker obtain work in a new field.
  • Identifying the problems that restrict a specific worker from doing certain physical or mental tasks in a job.
  • Understanding what community college or other classes might help the worker learn new skills.
  • Understanding what college programs could help the work.
  • Providing counseling for workers looking for a new job – such as how to interview, where to apply, and how to prepare a resume.

Generally, the way it works is in accepted claims, when the worker reaches maximum medical improvement and is provided with permanent work restrictions by his or her doctor, if the employer is unable or unwilling to accommodate the injured workers’ restrictions, a vocational rehabilitation assessment will be ordered by the workers comp insurance company. 

Although these services one would think are a benefit, usually, the carrier will avoid paying for items that might truly assist in improving the worker’s skills and their ability to get a new job, such as education from a Community College or a degree from one of North Carolina’s many great universities. When Vocational Rehabilitation was classed as medical treatment back in 2011, many thought this would indicate a change in the way Voc Rehab could be used in North Carolina. 

Alas, this change has not come to be. This is because the true purpose behind most vocational rehabilitation situations is to stop benefits to the injured worker based on the injured worker’s failure to comply with the plan, or otherwise to apply pressure on the injured worker to settle his or her case as soon as possible. Often, the vocational counselor can be extremely annoying, sending seemingly endless streams of emails and calls and constantly hounding the injured worker to engage in job searches. This is by design. 

Who provides the Vocational Rehab Services

Normally, an approved vocational rehab specialist must be approved to work on behalf of the injured worker. Vocational rehab specialists are generally paid for their services in the same way doctors paid. The specialist helps identify the workers’ abilities, skills, the type of new skills needed, and course selection. This is typically done in an initial assessment, which is usually attended by the injured workers’ attorney as well. There may be written testing to determine the skill level of the employee with regard to the worker’s math and/or language skills. 

Subsequently, the vocational rehab specialist also assists monitors the worker’s success in applying for jobs and attending interviews. In some cases, this may include providing job leads to be followed up on by the injured worker, as well as scheduling actual job interviews. 

Technically, vocational rehab specialists do not work for the employer – though the progress the worker is making will be reported to the employer and the injured worker. But they do work for the workers compensation insurance company and this needs to be understood.  

If the vocational rehabilitation specialist is not helping the worker obtain suitable skills or suitable employment by, for instance, continually requiring the injured worker apply for jobs that are no longer available or which are clearly beyond the physical capability of the worker–the employee can seek to have a new vocational rehab specialist appointed. 

Generally, the rehab specialist will begin by preparing a return-to-work plan. The return to work plan should review all possible job options including:

  • Keeping the current job with the current employer
  • Getting a new job with a current employer
  • Job training with a current employer
  • Suitable employment with a new employer
  • Job training with a new employer
  • Vocational rehabilitation to get ready for a new job
  • Other possibilities including self-employment

Workers who refuse to comply with a vocational rehab plan ordered by the North Carolina Industrial Commission  may lose their compensation benefits until they do comply with the plan.

Most workers comply with new training requirements. They may object to unreasonable demands by the specialist – such as applying to jobs they have no chance of getting.

Experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers understand when it is likely that a vocational rehabilitation expert will be hired and how to prepare the injured worker in dealing with the often rigorous demands of vocational rehabilitation.  

As with most laws, some exceptions may apply – some severely injured workers may not be required to learn a new trade or skill – because there’s no reason to expect they will be hired. In other words, if it would be futile for the injured worker to be required to engage in vocational rehabilitation, due to their level of impairment, lack of education, and age, then a motion may be made by the attorney to excuse the injured worker from having to participate in vocational rehabilitation. 

The employee does not have to reach maximum medical improvement in order to be required to engage in vocational rehabilitation. Generally, employers or employees can ask for vocational rehabilitation if the worker hasn’t returned to work or if he or she is earning less than 75% of his/her average weekly wages and are receiving other approved benefits.

The vocational rehabilitation plan should be in writing and tailored to the individual worker’s needs.

Attorney Joe Miller fights for all injured workers. He has decades of experience working with vocational rehabilitation specialists. He understands when employers and insurance companies are truly interested in helping an employee get a new job and when the employer (or insurance company) is just trying to terminate a worker’s benefits or apply pressure to settle.  To learn if you are likely to end up in vocational rehabilitation, call attorney Joe Miller at 1-(888) 667-8295 or use my contact form to make an appointment.