The Workers’ Compensation statutes in both the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia offer a benefit to injured workers who desire to return to work: called Vocational Rehabilitation (often called “Voc Rehab” for short). Vocational Rehabilitation arises in a workers’ compensation case when the injured worker’s medical treatment is complete, or near complete, and the worker is given permanent restrictions from his/her doctor that prevent him/her from physically performing the work they were able to perform before the work injury. During the Voc Rehab process, the injured worker receives assistance from a licensed vocational expert so that they can, together, strive towards getting back to work with another employer and within the injured workers’ permanent physical limitations. The injured worker receives pay from the workers’ compensation insurance company during vocational rehabilitation: while he/she is applying for jobs, taking classes, or going through retraining.
One scenario in which an injured worker is able to receive Voc Rehab services (placement, training or schooling) and benefits would be, for example, if the injured worker was employed before the injury as a security officer which required standing for 8 hours a day, and lifting up to 50lbs. Yet, because of his work injury his/her treating physician documents that he/she is now only able to stand for 2 hours a day, and lift only up to 20lbs. The injured worker would be entitled to receive Vocational Rehabilitation services and benefits in both the District and in Maryland. If that same security officer was released to full-duty work, and had no permanent limitations on his ability to lift or stand, then he/she would not be entitled to Vocational Rehabilitation and would be expected to return back to his pre-injury job, even if his work activities caused him some physical discomfort doing his/her job.
Often times, the permanent work limitations are given by the treating physician at the time the injured worker is being discharged from his doctor’s care. A test, called a Functional Capacity Evaluation (FCE), offers a more detailed analysis as to what the injured worker can and cannot do. The FCE usually takes place at a physical therapy facility, although not all physical therapy facilities perform FCE’s. The FCE typically lasts approximately 4 hours. Upon completion of the FCE, a detailed report is issued stating how much the injured worker can lift, push, pull, and carry, and for how long he can sit, stand, walk, and run. If the FCE evaluator feels the injured worker has permanent work restrictions that prevent him or her from returning to the job they had at the time of the injury, then vocational rehabilitation will begin.
Comparing Maryland And The District Of Columbia
There are several key differences in the Voc Rehab process in Maryland and the District of Columbia. For example, in Maryland the Workers’ Compensation Regulations state that the parties to the Claim may agree on the Vocational Counselor that will be assisting the injured worker with getting back to full-time work within his/her permanent work restrictions. If no agreement is reached, the Commission will pick the Vocational Counselor from a list.
In the District of Columbia, however, there is no such provision, and the vocational counselor is typically selected by the workers’ compensation insurance company, or the company’s attorney. Therefore, injured workers in DC are often at a disadvantage.
The manner in which the injured worker is scrutinized in Maryland versus the District during the Vocational Rehabilitation process is also vastly different. In Maryland, Voc Rehab is offered to injured workers typically in three-month increments. If the injured worker in Maryland is “compliant” during those first three months, the vocational rehabilitation process will be extended for another three months, and another three months after that, until the Claimant finds a job or the insurance carrier finds a reason to deem the injured worker as being “non-compliant”. One example of how noncompliance is alleged is by stating that the injured worker was not applying to enough jobs each week, or was showing up late to their weekly meetings with the Voc Rehab counselor. In the District of Columbia, however, vocational rehabilitation can go on for years without ever having to request or wait for an extension of time from the workers’ compensation insurance adjuster.
Thus, while in Maryland the vocational process is evaluated on a monthly basis by the insurance adjuster, in the District of Columbia, injured workers who are receiving Voc Rehab benefits are often left to their own devices. The Rehabilitation counselors typically do not write detailed monthly reports commenting on everything that was done and/or not done by the injured worker, and so the injured worker’s level of participation during Voc Rehab in DC is not scrutinized or judged as closely as it is in Maryland. The same goes for the level of participation of the Voc Rehab counselor in the District who or is not required to write monthly reports in the District as they are in Maryland. For example, were classes or re-training discussed and offered officially? If so, when? Was the counselor late to meetings as well? These details control the Vocational Rehabilitation process in Maryland, and determine the extent to which Voc Rehab will take place, and how long Vocational Rehabilitation services and benefits are offered to the injured worker. In the District of Columbia, those details are often lacking.
In sum, there are many benefits and some detriments to each jurisdiction’s workers’ compensation laws. There is no perfect system. The best thing for the injured worker to do is to follow the laws and procedures of the jurisdiction in which their injury took place, and to do so with the assistance of an attorney they trust. If additional information is needed as to the Vocational Rehabilitation process, I can be reached at: LPisano@bsgfdlaw.com, or on my direct work line of: 301-740-3304.
By Lisa Pisano