Vocational Rehabilitation and Workers’ Compensation

As defined by the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission, vocational rehabilitation (often referred to as “voc rehab”) is a state benefit for covered employees who are disabled as a result of their employment.  This benefit provides various services to help these employees return to their previous employment status, or to a position substantially similar to that prior to their injury.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services are expressly defined as “professional services reasonably necessary during or after or both during and after medical treatment to enable a disabled, covered employee, as soon as practical, to secure suitable gainful employment.”  Md. Code Ann., Lab & Empl. §9-670.  Such “suitable gainful employment” includes any employment that an injured worker (injured either by occupational disease or accidental injury) can engage in that will restore him/herself to the “level of support” he/she had at the time of such occupational disease or accidental injury. The financial responsibility for vocational rehabilitation, and in certain cases for compensation, falls on the employer or its insurer.  Md. Code Ann., Lab & Empl. §9-674 (a), (b).  The idea is that the injured worker is not to be held responsible for the brunt of their recovery.

In Maryland, there are both public and private options for vocational rehabilitation services providers.  One of the most recognized public providers is through the Department of Education, Division of Rehabilitation Services.  DORS, as it is commonly referred to, provides a range of services for all types of injuries and disabilities including blindness, mental illness, and deafness.   The mission of DORS is “to provide leadership and support promoting the employment, economic self-sufficiency and independence of individuals with disabilities.”

To determine the appropriate vocational rehabilitation services for an injured worker, the Commission conducts a vocational assessment and looks at medical, educational, social, economic, and legal factors of that worker’s life.  Md. Code Ann., Lab & Empl. §9-670 (d)(1).  Various types of vocational services include coordination of medical services, vocational counseling, assessment, evaluation, job development and/or placement, vocational rehabilitation training, plan monitoring, plan development.  Md. Code Ann., Lab & Empl. §9-670 (e)(2)(i-ix).  The Workers’ Compensation Commission is responsible for referring a qualified employee to a vocational rehabilitation provider (either public or private).  Md. Code Ann., Lab & Empl. §9-673 (a)(1).

In devising such a vocational rehabilitation plan, the Commission must take into account past and future factors in determining the services to be rendered to the covered employee.  Past factors and circumstances include earnings, interests, and qualifications prior to the accident or disablement cause by occupational disease.  Future conditions include predictions regarding the job market and the employee’s future earning capacity. The Commission’s plan must give the injured worker a reasonable chance to regain employment and it must satisfy the state statutory requirements as presented by that Commission.  82 Am. Jur. 2d Workers’ Compensation §396 (2010).  There is a preferential hierarchy assigned to various vocational rehabilitation services.  The least desirable outcome is to have the injured worker become self-employed.  The most desirable outcome, however, is for the injured worker to return to the same job as before the injury or onset of occupational disease.  Various other plans in between these two extremes are to either help the injured employee find a new and comparable job with his/her original employer, find another job with an entirely different employer, or training on the job to help the worker ease back into employment.  Md. Code Regs. (A)(3)(a-g) (2010).

If any objection is made against the proposed vocational rehabilitation plan, the objecting party can request a hearing to bring in new evidence within 15 days after the Commission gives its written notice of the plan.  Md. Code Ann., Lab & Empl. §9-673 at (c), (d)(1), (2).  Regardless of objections by either party, the Commission has the final determination over the approval of the vocational rehabilitation plan.  Md. Code Regs. (C)(5) (2010).

Although vocational rehabilitation services and plans are decided on a case-by-case basis, the common end goal of vocational rehabilitation services is for an injured worker to end up somewhere in the middle of his pre-injury and post-injury earning capacities.  82 Am. Jur. 2d Workers’ Compensation §396 (2010).  There are numerous steps in the vocational rehabilitation process to allow for close consideration of the injured worker’s past and present capabilities and finding a suitable position of employment or a similar alternative.  The end goal is to restore the injured worker to as close to their independent, pre-injury status as possible.

If you are at the vocational rehab phase of workers’ comp, and you do not have a workers’ compensation attorney, you should get one.  As a practical reality, the choice of vocational rehab counselor, the status of the injured worker, and the definition of making an employee whole again are all up for debate.  Make sure you have an experienced advocate on your team.  Our workers’ compensation calculator does not compute vocational rehab benefits.  You may contact us to find a qualified workers’ compensation attorney.

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