The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act requires the employer to provide vocational rehabilitation services when an injured worker is unable to return to his/her pre-injury employment and s/he meets certain requirements. Vocational rehabilitation services can include many things, such as job search assistance; vocational retraining, including higher education; as well as an employee’s self-directed rehabilitation program. The Commission Rules require that the employer evaluate the potential need for rehabilitation services when it can be reasonably determined that the injured worker will not be able to return to his/her pre-injury job, or when the injured worker has been unable to work for 120 straight days. This initial assessment addresses the necessity of a plan or program of rehabilitation; if a plan is deemed necessary, a copy of that plan is to be given to the injured worker and also filed with the Commission. Thereafter, the employer is to file updates every four months, either reaffirming that no services are necessary or reviewing the progress of the plan. The Rules and the case law are quite clear that preparation of the vocational assessment is mandatory for the employer as soon as the 120-day trigger is reached. Despite this, employers routinely ignore this obligation.
This principle was brought to bear once again in Holland Medical Equipment v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2015 IL (5th) 140139-U. There, the employee suffered a lower back injury and underwent extensive treatment, including three surgeries, over the next two years. The injured worker began missing work six weeks after his accident yet the employer paid no workers’ compensation benefits: no weekly Temporary Total Disability benefits were paid, nor were any of the medical expenses paid. When the employee was discharged from medical care, he had a permanent 50-pound lifting restriction; the employer agreed this prevented him from resuming his pre-accident job. The employer then arranged for the injured worker to meet with its chosen vocational consultant. At that point, the injured worker had been off work for nearly three years. The meeting took place but the employee was never provided with any potential employment opportunities or a vocational rehabilitation assessment or plan. The consultant provided no direct vocational services to the injured worker but did conduct two labor market surveys; these, however, were not offered into evidence.
The injured worker had not been idle since being fired by the employer; instead he had been completing course work toward an associate’s degree, with the ultimate goal of getting his bachelor’s degree in social work. At trial, he submitted his transcripts from the community college, showing that he was 12 credits shy of his degree, with an associated cost of $1100; he also submitted the recommended course work and costs for a bachelor’s degree in social work from Southern Illinois University.
In its decision, the Commission noted that no “vocational rehabilitation plan was undertaken” by the employer; the injured worker, however, had provided documentation related to the social work degree he intended to obtain. The Commission ordered the employer to “provide and pay for vocational rehabilitation to assist the [employee] to obtain a degree in social work under the program submitted” as well as associated weekly benefits.
On appeal, the employer argued there was no evidence that the benefits of obtaining a social work degree outweighed the costs of the program, and “merely because the vocational consultant did not formulate a plan,” did not mean the Commission had the authority to order it to pay for the injured worker’s schooling. Instead, the employer claimed that the Commission should have remanded the case to the arbitrator for “further hearing on the subject of vocational rehabilitation.” Essentially, the employer acknowledged that it failed to meet its burden but felt the appropriate remedy for that failure of proof was that it should get a do-over. The Appellate Court rejected that position:
In this case, the Commission determined that, although Holland retained McKee, it did not actually authorize him to provide any vocational rehabilitation services for the claimant. Holland also did not issue any written assessment as to its belief that no vocational rehabilitation services were warranted. See 50 Ill. Admin. Code § 7110.10 (West 2012) (rule requiring the employer to prepare a written assessment of the course of medical care, and, “if appropriate, rehabilitation required to return” the claimant to work). Further, the undisputed evidence demonstrated that the claimant could never return to his previous line of work, in which he earned approximately $35,000 per year, and that he could work as a social worker with his current work restrictions if he completed the necessary coursework. The claimant submitted evidence of the estimated cost for his remaining 12 community college credits ($1,191) and the annual tuition for his prospective courses at Southern Illinois University (presumably two additional years at approximately $32,000 as an off-campus student). No other evidence was submitted suggesting that the costs of the claimant’s self-directed educational plan outweighed the benefits to his future earning capacity and future employment outlook, especially given his young age and lengthy expected future in the workforce and his proven ability to complete the program. Holland Medical Equipment, 2015 IL (5th) 140139-U, ¶27.
This case is notable because it reaffirms that vocational rehabilitation includes a multitude of options, including an employee’s self-directed pursuit of higher education. It also highlights the importance of complying with the Rules and performing the requisite vocational rehabilitation assessment.