Yesterday I posted a simplistic summary of vocational benefits, which is my typical way of trying to simplify and explain the general process. However, when vocational services are provided in actual workers’ compensation L&I claims, it becomes a much more dynamic than can be captured in a simple summary. Over the next few posts, I’m going provide a deeper explanation of the various phases within the vocational process. Today, I’m going to focus on “Early Intervention”.
Early intervention services are outlined in WAC 296-19A-050, which states that these services are intended to help injured workers return to work or continue to work for the employer of injury or the current employer. Early intervention services may include:
1) Discussing early return to work options with the employer, worker, and attending physician;
2) Identifying return to work goals and barriers that may interfere with or prevent the injured worker from returning to or continuing to work;
3) Assisting employers with offers of employment;
4) Planning and working with the referral source on necessary job modifications and pre job accommodations;
5) Performing job analyses; and
6) Assessing the injured worker’s need for preferred worker status and educating about that benefit.
In a publication titled “Getting Back to Work: It’s Your Job and Your Future”, L&I states that getting back to work is a “team effort” requiring the injured worker, attending provider, employer and the Department of Labor and Industries to all work together on returning to work. However, as an injured workers’ representative, I believe this is one of the biggest failures in the early intervention process. Rarely, if ever, do I see these entities working together towards a common return to work goal. More commonly I see the members of this “team” each working separately on the issue most pertinent to them at the time.
This can be problematic for early intervention success since fees to vocational counselors for early intervention services are limited to 20 hours of professional costs, are allowed only once per claim, and extensions cannot exceed 12 weeks for graduated return to work and 4-6 weeks for work hardening. If possible, during that time the vocational counselor will typically explore the following return to work options:
a) Graduated return-to-work by increasing the number of hours until the worker is back up to the work pattern at the time of injury;
b) Transitional return-to-work in a temporary job where the injured worker is expected to be able to go back to the job of injury during early intervention;
c) Light-duty work in a job with less physical demands than job of injury; and
d) Temporary work in a job that isn’t ongoing.
However, because the team approach frequently does not occur, injured workers are often surprised to receive an unexpected job offer when they are focused on other aspects of their workers’ compensation claim. This often creates stress and anxiety because injured workers feel isolated and alone as they struggle to figure out how to meet the demands of a job while simultaneously attending necessary medical appointments and meeting other claim related requirements. This is one place where injured workers’ representatives can make a big difference.
Not only do we provide support for injured workers who feel alone in the process, skilled representatives know how to address the issues that arise in early intervention and can help to effectuate the team approach (assuming an early intervention return to work conversation is appropriate given the facts and circumstances of the claim).