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  • Writer's pictureSingle Handed Consulting

Washington's Vocational Recovery Project Gains National Attention

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

An innovative approach to injured workers in Washington State recently drew national attention.

Robert Wilson, President and CEO of, America’s largest regulatory and compliance information center for the industry, dedicated his June column to the Vocational Recovery Project, a Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) initiative aimed at engaging all parties in preventing work disability by improving return-to-work outcomes. “From my experience and point of view, the Vocational Recovery Project is unlike any other in the country at this time,” says Wilson.

L&I Launches Vocational Recovery Campaign

In 2014, L&I developed a campaign designed to lower the amount of long term disability cases they were seeing and improve the return to work rate for injured workers. The campaign had three main components:

  • Reducing the Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (VRC) referral rate from 350+ days to an average of 68 days.

  • Improving communications and collaborations with VRCs and encouraging innovative solutions.

  • Suspending an audit process unpopular within the VRC community as part of improving overall relations

In 2016, the department launched the Vocational Recovery Project with a pilot group of 65 claims managers and VRCs from the private sector.

“The project was a departure from more traditional approaches to workers compensation claims,” says Kevin Leneker, founder and co-owner of Single Handed Consulting. “The old theory was that when someone was injured, you replaced them. Now the emphasis is on seeing what we can do to keep them at work and recognizing that employees provide a ton of value.”

The project came about in response to a 2016 report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, and as part of one of L&I’s major initiatives under strategic Goal 2: Helping Injured Workers Heal and Return to Work. Based on recommendations that emerge, the department will refocus its vocational services.

Within a relatively short time frame, the pilot project has yielded impressive results, including a 20% reduction in the number of long-term disability cases (around 800 workers per year) and an anticipated expenditure savings of approximately $2 billion, according to L&I Director Joel Sacks.

“It’s good for business,” says Leneker. “Statistics have shown that when you can start the referral process sooner, it results in dramatic savings and that helps everyone - the employers that pay the rates and the injured workers.”

Equally important, participants in the pilot reported positive experiences in working with their professional counterparts. “They described unique problems with injured workers, as well as the very original solutions they created in this collaborative effort,” says Wilson. “They described creative solutions that would otherwise not have manifested themselves.”

Leneker is a firm advocate of starting the claims referral process as early as possible. Single Handed works with clients, including several large industry associations, to be proactive in initiating claims quickly and having return-to-work frameworks in place even before an injury occurs. “The idea is to get people back on the job,” he says. “It’s so much easier to keep an employee than to try to hire a new one and deal with recruitment and retraining costs. The sooner you engage, the better things are for everyone.”

In its next phase, the Vocational Recovery Project lays out 9 goals designed to pair claims managers directly with vocational experts to collaborate on a recovery plan for their injured workers. Six of those goals have already been enacted during the pilot program. It’s not the first time L&I has reached out to the private sector, says Leneker. “L&I has tried to collaborate with private stakeholders in different ways throughout the years. I think they’re really onto something with their current approach.”

Wilson points out how unusual it is to see a state agency like L&I being innovative. “By all private sector standards, they should not be innovating anything,” he says. “However...they are doing the right thing; showing that lives can be restored, disability can be avoided, and money can be saved in the process.” He recommends that the private sector take a closer look at both the approach itself and the results it’s bringing. “There is a lot to learn from what they are doing.”

Leneker agrees. “Nobody loses in this deal,” he says. “The employer saves money and effort and the employee gets to stay at work. I applaud L&I’s effort.”

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