For injuries occurring on or after January 1, 2004, vocational retraining has essentially been eliminated. For injuries after this date, there is no longer a right to vocational retraining. Instead, injured employees may be eligible for a supplemental job displacement benefit in the form of a non-transferable voucher for education-related retraining or skill enhancement at a state approved or accredited school. The value of the voucher ranges from $4,000.00 to $10,000.00 depending on the amount of permanent disability in the case. The voucher may be used for payment of tuition, fees, books, and other expenses required by the school for retraining or skill enhancement. This law is new and is presently being interpreted by the courts and judges.
If your injury was before 1/1/04 and if the injury or illness prevents you from returning to the same job, you may qualify for vocational rehabilitation benefits. It is a medical decision as to whether you qualify for vocational retraining. Your doctor must clearly indicate that you are medically precluded from returning to your usual and customary occupation because of the industrial injury. If you are off work for more than 90 days, then the insurance company should give your doctor a job description of the exact duties you performed at work. The job description sent to the doctor should be reviewed by both you and our office. Once your doctor reports on whether you can return to your usual and customary job, you will receive a letter from the defendant and a copy of the report.
Vocational rehabilitation is a voluntary benefit. You do not have to participate if you do not wish to. If you do not want rehabilitation at all, you may decline these services by signing a designated form. This will completely end the defendant’s obligation concerning vocational rehabilitation services at any later date.
The first effort of every rehabilitation situation is to return you to work with your previous employer. If your employer is able to accommodate the restrictions set forth by your doctor, then the rehabilitation plan is the offer of modified work. If you refuse an offer of modified work by your employer, then you will not be entitled to further rehabilitation services. Additionally, if you reject or fail to respond within 30 days to an offer of modified work, then you will not qualify for vocational rehabilitation services.
However, if your employer is not able to offer you a modified job, then you should consider vocational retraining. You have 90 days to accept vocational rehabilitation services. If you want the services, but not immediately, you should notify our office and we will explore the possibility of delaying services. The vocational rehabilitation benefits vary greatly and are tailored to your individual situation. The services can include job counseling and evaluations, ergonomic evaluations, skill upgrading, job placement, and possible retraining in a new occupation.
During the retraining process you are entitled to a weekly payment. The maximum payment while on vocational rehabilitation is $246.00 per week. This payment is called vocational rehabilitation maintenance allowance (VRMA). Please be certain to notify our office once you start to receive vocational rehabilitation benefits or maintenance allowance. To receive the maximum, you must have been earning at least $369.00 per week or paid an hourly rate of $9.23. If you have an injury which will produce some permanent disability, then you may request a permanent disability advance to supplement your VRMA up to the TD rate. These “advances” will later be deducted from your settlement.
Since vocational rehabilitation is a voluntary benefit, it is separate and distinct from your basic Worker’s Compensation claim. Services for vocational rehabilitation are not part of the basic Workers’ Compensation claim and our office is compensated for these services on an hourly basis. The insurance carrier ordinarily withholds 12% of your weekly VRMA benefits to create a fund for the payment of these fees at the conclusion of your rehabilitation program. At that time, we request a fee based on the time and effort involved in your rehabilitation case. The amount we request is subject to approval by a Judge at the WCAB, is ordinarily limited to the amount withheld by the defendant. The attorney fee is paid directly to our office by the defendant. You do not have to send any payment.
During the course of your plan, it is very likely that a qualified rehabilitation representative (QRR) will be assigned to assist with your plan. This is a trained expert we will use to help guide you through the various stages of the vocational rehabilitation process. The QRR will meet with you to find out your interests, job skill, other qualifications and your future potential for the job market. The QRR will design a specific return to work plan for you. This will be done with your consultation and our oversight. The plan will detail the benefits you receive, the obligations of the defendant, the QRR and you. The length of the plan will be set as well. If you are unhappy with your QRR, then you do have the right to request a change of counselors.
Be sure to always advise anyone who calls you to set up a rehabilitation interview to call your attorney. It is absolutely necessary that all interviews with a QRR be cleared by our office.
In recent years the California Legislature has placed very strict limits on rehabilitation plans. For example, the plan must be completed within 18 months, the VRMA payments are limited to a total of 52 weeks, it is difficult to change plans which have been agreed to, and the total costs – including VRMA, counseling fees, services and expenses – are limited to $16,000.00. California law does not allow for vocational rehabilitation benefits to be traded or settled for a cash payment.
If you are already enrolled and have made substantial progress toward a degree or certificate at a community college, State University or the University of California, you may be able to waive the services of a rehabilitation counselor. Funds normally paid for counseling may then be used to help pay for the college or university program in which you are enrolled.
Subject to the $16,000.00 cap you are entitled to mileage at $.34 per mile, costs for supplies, tools and equipment, tuition and student fees, reasonable additional living expenses, such as temporary relocation costs during evaluation or training, and reasonable relocation expenses if permanent relocation is required. All plan costs will come under the $16,000.00 cap.
If needed and recommended by the QRR, you may also receive child care reimbursement. Mileage transportation expenses related to vocation rehabilitation should be kept separate from your medical mileage. These should be turned in to your vocational rehabilitation counselor (QRR).
During the rehabilitation plan you are expected to take an active role in your rehabilitation, complete assignments, attend all appointments, classes, interviews, and scheduled meetings, stay in contact with and immediately notify your counselor and attorney of any problems, and be available for rehabilitation services Monday through Friday, during reasonable business hours. Your full time participation is required by the rehabilitation statutes. As with TD, you should not work and receive VRMA at the same time. To consciously do so is a felony. If you do not participate fully, the defendant may stop your VRMA. The key to a successful rehabilitation is your active involvement at every step – from the initial meeting with the QRR until the day you return to work. We are here to help you through the rules and the procedures.
For injuries after 1/1/03 and before 1/1/04, you may be able to waive vocational retraining entirely in exchange for a onetime payment of up to $10,000.00 for self directed vocational retraining. The insurance industry is rather reluctant to make the maximum payment of $10,000.00.