I have a big expando file in the corner of my office labeled “1999 Voc Project – WSTLA”. My assistant has tried to shred it more times then I can count. I think I keep it as a reminder. A reminder of one of the low points. It was not the first year there had been discussions on what to do with vocational services for injured workers. It certainly would not be the last. But, it was memorable year. There were meetings and conferences and summits. That was the year there was an actual two day “retreat”. I am fairly certain Bill Hochberg was forever scared by the experience. There were graphs and flow charts, bullet points, proposals, drafts, redrafts, re-redrafts, and there were arguments. A typical meeting? Just read the minutes – Meeting Minutes dated August 24, 1999 – “ Doug Connell (then Assistant Director, L&I) suggested the best way to make changes would be if labor and business could agree on an approach”. Doug always did have a way of understating the obvious. If only . . . labor and business could agree. There wasn’t agreement on what the problems were, much less how to fix them. We failed miserably and spectacularly. At the end of the day, injured workers still had poor outcomes, and business was still drowning in the administrative expense of those failed outcomes. We had gotten nowhere- again. Well Doug, put down your fishing pole and look at us now!
I am not sure I can explain just what turned the tide. Sure, it helped that Governor Gregoire made it clear the issue WOULD be a priority this session. Having Marty Brown or Peter Bogdanoff from the Governor’s office in the room does tend to make everyone work just a little harder. Yes, the Department was willing to look at changes and put some key staff in the room to help. Vickie Kennedy and Rich King were invaluable both as resources and guides. Having the Director, Judy Schurke, taking part in the discussions was key. When the Director of the agency tells you the underlying purpose of workers compensation is to act as a safety net, and she will not let you poke holes in that net . . . well, you listen. It is impossible to discount the fact we had a rosier financial picture to work within. We did not feel constrained to make only changes which would be revenue neutral. (an impossible requirement from earlier attempts at change) Add to the mix a small group of business and labor representatives willing to set aside what could not be agreed upon, and focus instead on what could be done – Terry Peterson, an attorney representing self-insured employers, Lori Carlson, a business representative from Sellen Construction, Jeff Johnson from the Washington State Labor Council, and myself. Instead of spinning our wheels rehashing the traditional stumbling blocks, there was a true desire to do better for both injured workers and employers.
The end result – a Vocational Rehabilitation Pilot Program. I will not focus on what the pilot does not do. Those familiar with workers compensation will have no difficulty pinpointing the pet issues left unresolved for another day. What we do have is a program of increased opportunity, increased control and, ultimately, the potential for better outcomes for injured workers.
The Vocational Pilot has a variety of components which will be in effect for all vocational plans approved from January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2013. The Department, with input and assistance from a subcommittee appointed by the Director, will study the heck out of what happens – then recommendations will be made based on the results and outcomes documented. This legislation provides for some impressive changes to the vocational services and benefits as we have come to know them.
The first set of noticeable changes involve how vocational services are delivered. The Department will pilot moving some in-house vocational rehabilitation counselors into existing Work Source Centers. Some workers will be referred to these Work Source Center counselors, instead of the traditional referral to private vocational counselors. The idea behind the move is to make better use of already in place return to work resources. Sort of a one-stop shopping for vocational resources. These centers already exist and provide access to a variety of community, employer and educational resources. Through this change the Department intends to study ways to improve the delivery of vocational services to injured workers, reduce cost, and increase efficiencies. The traditional model of referral to private vocational counselors will also remain in place and these private counselors will have access to and be encouraged to use the resources at the Work Source Centers.
The process for evaluating whether a worker is eligible for vocational services is not changed in the pilot. An Ability to Work Assessment, or Employability Assessment will still be conducted to determine whether vocational rehabilitation is both necessary and likely to enable the injured worker to become employable at gainful employment. Once a worker is found eligible for further services, vocational plan development begins. Employers are provided a last opportunity to offer the worker a bona fide permanent position, within restrictions provided by the worker’s health care provider. After this last opportunity to offer bona fide employment the employer is taken out of the picture. This allows the worker to be in the driver’s seat without interruption from the previous employer.
There are a number of areas in the pilot which speak to increased worker control, and in turn increased responsibility and accountability during plan development, and throughout the vocational plan itself. These include consequences for plan interruptions which are within the workers control, and suspension of benefits for noncooperation. Vocational Counselors are also held accountable with timelines for plan development and detailed progress reporting. These components exist to some degree in our current vocational system, but are not uniformly or consistently applied. Within the pilot expectations and accountability will be better articulated in each retraining program, so all parties are clear on their rights and responsibilities.
With this increased control and responsibility, the pilot program offers significantly increased time and money for retraining programs. Workers will have up to two years and $12,000 to utilize for their retraining. The dollars for tuition are indexed to the cost of community college. As tuition in our state rises, so will the available money for retraining of injured workers. The tuition dollars can be used in any accredited or licensed program, or a program from a list approved by the Department. Two years provides sufficient time to complete virtually every community college level training or certificate program as well as needed time for ESL, GED, or other basic skill level enhancements. There are also a variety of shorter but more costly training programs in our state, focused on a specific skill set or return to work option. With the increased funding, these programs will also be available for injured workers. On the job training options will be fostered as a useful tool for those workers not interested in traditional classroom instruction. With this rich benefit in hand, workers will truly have choices for retraining, increasing the potential for return to work at real family wage jobs.
Recognizing vocational retraining is not an attractive option for all injured workers, the pilot includes a new opt-out provision. A worker who has been found eligible for and likely to benefit from further vocational services, may decline to participate in a vocational plan, choosing Option 2 under the new provisions. The worker will then receive an amount equal to 6 months of time loss, payable biweekly. The claim will be closed and any permanent partial disability paid. The vocational costs for tuition (the $12,000) is reserved and may be accessed by the worker for a period of 5 years, should the worker decide to follow up with training at a later date. The claim will not have to be reopened to access the vocational training dollars. At the workers request the funds would be paid to a training or educational facility, to assist in retraining. If a worker chooses the opt-out and is again found eligible for vocational services under a reopened or new claim within 5 years, the available time for a retraining program will be limited to 18 months. This represents the original 24 months less the 6 months paid at the time of the opt-out. A worker may only decline vocational services and receive the opt-out benefit once.
Where there is a pilot, there is a study. For the first time ever, the Department is going to track outcomes. Do workers finish their retraining programs? Do they re-enter the workforce in their newly trained capacity, or do they return to their original job of injury? What do wages look like? What percentage of workers are re-injured after retraining? How many workers are found eligible for retraining a second time under a subsequent claim? What do the pension rates look like? How much is this costing, or saving? Can we create incentives for employers to re-hire their injured and retrained workers? Are employers seeing finality and cost predictability? Who is choosing to opt-out and do they return to work? Do workers who choose the opt-out come back later and use the vocational retraining dollars? The answers to these questions, and many others, will direct what vocational services look like at the conclusion of the pilot period. The intent is to build on the successful components, and to use what we have learned to continue improvements.
Future recommendations for vocational services for injured workers will depend on outcomes documented during this pilot. What your individual clients do with these vocational services, and their return to work outcomes, DOES matter. The actions and outcomes today will direct where we go next. If you take nothing else away from reading this article- take this. Help your clients succeed. Over the course of the next 5 years each of us will have a handful of clients who receive vocational assistance under this pilot. Those clients are our guinea pigs. Those of us who do this kind of work know how devastating an injury can be to a worker and their family. I have always believed we must give these individuals the tools to rebuild a secure place in the workforce. A place with dignity and financial security, where their contribution is valued and respected. This pilot is a test of some of those tools. Help your clients understand them, use them, and benefit from them.