Does Florida Still Offer Re-employment Services for Injured Workers?

Most injuries on the job are relatively minor and do not interfere with a worker’s ability to return to the same or similar employment. Less often, injuries are catastrophic in nature and prevent the worker from returning to any type of gainful employment. But, what happens to Florida’s injured workers that have serious injuries and recover sufficiently to return to a lighter duty type position, but are no longer capable of their previously more physically demanding employment? Is there assistance available in Florida for these workers in making the transition into lighter work?

A comprehensive workers’ compensation plan should not only include providing medical care and disability benefits needed for the worker to recover from his/her injuries, but must also a mechanism for ensuring the injured worker has the tools for returning to gainful employment. Ideally, such re-employment should not be huge financial setback for injured workers. If one is working a physically demanding job making $50,000 per year, but is injured and no longer able to do this type of work due to his/her work injury, re-employment in jobs earning only $25,000 per year is not successful re-employment from the worker perspective. The best outcome in this type scenario is for workers to transition into other lighter duty work with similar salary expectations. Unfortunately, this often is not the outcome.

Before 2011, an injured worker, in need of education, training, or tools for making a successful transition to other work, had available to them the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Re-employment Services to help with such matters. Most communities like Panama City and Marianna had a local office staffed with a vocational counselor to help them understand available retraining options and assist them with the programs designed to lead to rewarding re-employment. The application process was likely to be done in person involving an exchange between the injured worker and someone assigned as a case worker for ongoing support. This Bureau of Rehabilitation and Re-employment Services was administered through the Department of Education (DOE) and paid for by the Workers’ Compensation Administration Trust Fund. In the last years of this program, DOE received $2.5 million per year from the Fund to help injured workers.

During the 2011-2012 session, the Florida legislature voted to abolish the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Re-employment Services. When Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law, 27 state vocational counselors and worker jobs were eliminated along with the locally staffed offices that were previously assessable to injured workers seeking retraining and re-employment assistance. At the time of closure, an estimated 1800 injured workers were being helped by the Bureau.

In place of the Bureau, the Florida Division of Workers’ Compensation (a division of the Department of Financial Services) has a Re-employment Services Program. The Program’s stated purpose is to help injured workers obtain employment when their job related injuries or illnesses prevent them from returning to their usual line of work. An injured worker initiates potential services through an online application process rather than visiting a local office. Then, upon receipt of required documentation from the injured worker, the carrier, the employer, and/or authorized medical providers, the Reemployment Services Program staff conduct a vocational assessment over the phone to determine which services a worker is eligible to receive. If additional information is needed after the assessment, the worker is then referred for a more complete vocational evaluation. If a vocational evaluation is conducted, the recommendations of the evaluator are reviewed by the Program staff to determine the best plan for returning the injured worker to suitable gainful re-employment.

The online application for program services can be found at https://wcres.fldfs.com/resportal/ieweb/ielogin.aspx. The website states that services will vary according to the needs of each injured worker, but may include vocational counseling, skills training, help with resume writing, job search assistance, and/or education and training. When ongoing counseling, education, training or other measures are deemed necessary, the State will contract with outside entities to provide such services.

While this program is currently “up and running”, it remains to be seen how successful the new service actually is at returning injured workers to successful employment, defined as work that allows for the limitations caused by the work injury, yet still provides a commiserate salary or earning potential when compared to pre-injury employment. An analysis of actual data either supporting the Program or revealing its shortcomings is saved for another day.

If you have been injured on the job and are not able to return to your past work, there may be assistance available. However, don’t put off contacting the Division of Workers’ Compensation about the Re-employment Services Program. There is a requirement that you apply for such services within one year from the date of your work comp settlement or the date the employer/carrier provided the last benefit in your work comp case.

For more general information, visit the Department of Financial Services website: http://www.fldfs.com/division/wc/employee/reemployment.htm#.WGguQstOKhA

If you need help in your workers’ compensation cases understanding the options that are available in re-training or re-employment, you can meet in person with one of the experienced work comp attorneys at Syfrett, Dykes & Furr. Call (850) 795-4979 for a free consultation.

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