No question, the best outcome in a workers’ compensation injury is for the injured worker to successfully return to work. In fact, the Ohio workers’ compensation system works well in those cases where the injury does not result in permanent damage AND the employer allows the worker to return to his/her former job.
Unfortunately, many injuries do result in permanent residuals that preclude the worker from returning to his/her former job. Nothing is more devastating to an injured worker than to have worked in an occupation or at a plant for years, sustain an injury (due to no fault of his/her own), and be prevented from physically returning to his/her former job. It is in these cases where the Ohio system breaks down.
While the law obligates the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to assist injured workers return to work, the manner in which the Bureau approaches this duty is tragic. It is interesting that the Bureau calls its return to work program “Vocational Rehabilitation.” True vocational rehabilitation involves the retraining of a harmed party to a new skill with the goal of reemployment. However, in practice, the Bureau typically provides “occupational rehabilitation,” which means merely providing assistance to an injured worker to find work within his/her physical and/or psychological limitations.
Most of our clients believe that it is fair and right for the Bureau to be required to provide true vocational rehabilitation. However, in almost all of our cases, the Bureau merely approves a guided return to work program that only focuses on a search for jobs within the client’s physical limitations. How realistic is this approach when the state unemployment rate is at 9.6 %? Considering that in this economy it may take years for the average able-bodied laid off worker to find employment, one can only assume that it will take even longer for a permanently disabled worker to find employment. Yet under Ohio’s “Vocational Rehabilitation” program, injured workers are given a mere 13 weeks to find employment. In addition, once injured workers complete their 13 weeks of job search, the law allows them merely 52 weeks of additional compensated job search to find employment.
Especially in this economy, where thousands and thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs have been lost, it makes sense for the Bureau to reconsider its approach and provide true Vocational Rehabilitation. While the Bureau’s rehabilitation guidelines suggest that such programs can be offered, in my entire 20 years of practice, I have witnessed the Bureau offer job retraining two times!
It is nothing less than tragic for the legislature to once again look towards workers’ compensation “reform” by considering privatizing, while turning it’s back and ignoring the travesty of Ohio’s “rehabilitation” program.