Work Comp in Alabama: The Vocational Rehabilitation Myth
Workers’ compensation benefits are intended to help restore injured workers. At least, that’s the original intent. That’s why medical treatment and vocational rehabilitation should be top priorities. Heal and restore whenever possible.
Yet, over the last couple decades, our system has largely devolved into a mess leaving many injured workers without benefits. Instead of help, too many injured workers are simply shuffled through the system. I’ve written numerous articles about the current work comp medical system and how it fails injured workers.
Another area where our current work comp system fails — Vocational Rehabilitation. What does “vocational rehabilitation” even mean in Alabama? The phrase is never fully defined by our workers’ compensation statute. Most lawyers and most courts really don’t understand the meaning of the phrase. Why not? The answer is that our courts have so limited its practical effect to the point vocational rehabilitation is largely non-existent and never legitimately offered.
Why don’t insurance carriers offer real vocational rehabilitation to injured workers? True vocational rehabilitation would be a huge benefit to the injured worker, his or her family and the entire community. We all benefit when injured workers are helped vocationally back to productive, gainful work. So, why is it not offered? The answer is cost. The insurance carrier wants to save its immediate short-term costs even if the rest of us pay higher long-term costs in lost productivity.
In Alabama, the insurance carriers pick the work comp doctor. And, many insurance carriers then send case nurses to meet with their chosen physician to influence the course of medical care. The insurance carriers control the process and have real opportunities to prepare a true vocational rehabilitation plan. Yet, they don’t.
But, it gets worse. The insurance carriers won’t provide real vocational help. Yet, they will use the idea against injured workers in court. How? Here are a few examples I’ve seen in trial:
Offering “vocational rehabilitation” on the eve of trial to avoid paying real disability benefits. I have faced this delay tactic several times. During a trial several years ago, a defense lawyer even proposed vocational rehabilitation for the first time while cross-examining my client. It was a sham tactic designed to delay the case or elicit some negative response from my client. It was a blank offer — no plans, no ideas, no details. I prepared my client. Everything was fine. I’ve often wondered how many times this defense lawyer has sprung such a ridiculous proposal at trial, years after a serious injury. If the carrier was really serious, it would have offered a legitimate proposal years earlier in that case. While a last ditch vague offer at trial was unique, I’ve seen many fake and last minute vocational rehabilitation offers in the month leading up to a trial. They are almost always delay tactics. The defense lawyer wants to postpone the case while the worker continues to suffer.
Offering “fake jobs” and calling it “vocational rehabilitation.” Yes, this has really happened. No, it is not vocational rehabilitation. I represented a worker in Huntsville with severe orthopedic and internal organ injuries. All his doctors agreed he was disabled. Yet, a few months before trial, my office started receiving forms indicating job interviews were scheduled and these potential employers would accommodate the injuries. I knew these were not real interviews or real jobs. But, if we did nothing, the insurance lawyers would argue they tried and my client did not want to work. Their plan — Make the injured worker look like a deadbeat at trial. So, I had my client secretly apply at every one of the businesses. Then, I conducted my own interviews of every business listed on the forms. Every listed business was real. Yet, the interviews and jobs were not. None of them had agreed to employ or accommodate my disabled client. None of them knew anything about the claimed interviews. What was the truth? The insurance carrier hired someone who simply used the phonebook to list area businesses. It was a total sham!
Offering expert opinions the worker is not disabled at trial based on non-existent vocational rehabilitation. This is the most frequent bad use of the phrase vocational rehabilitation. Here’s what happens. The insurance carrier has its treating doctor testify he or she supports vocational rehabilitation. Of course they do. Every doctor wants his or her patient to improve and return to work. Although the insurance company gets the doctor on record supporting vocational rehabilitation, no plan is ever proposed. The insurance carrier does not ask any vocational expert to develop a plan. Nothing. Instead, at trial, the insurance company’s vocational expert simply tells the court the injured worker is not disabled because vocational rehab is available. This expert proceeds to describe for the court vague jobs the worker should be able to perform once rehabilitated. It’s a game to convince the court a disabled person is employable based on a non-existent plan. The insurance carrier hopes the worker’s lawyer does not understand the issues. Unfortunately, many lawyers fall for this non-existent proposal.
Vocational rehabilitation could be a powerful tool to help Alabama workers suffering a permanent injury. Vocational rehabilitation should be a valuable part of our workers’ compensation system. Our system fails injured workers by ignoring true vocational training, education and rehabilitation.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm handles serious personal injury claims across Alabama. Many of these claims involve workplace injuries and disabilities. The firm has extensive trial and appellate experience helping injured workers.