The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE) Program helps veterans with service-connected disabilities and employment handicaps prepare for, find, and keep suitable jobs. Approximately 80 percent of veterans using the program achieve the employment goal through traditional education at a college, university, or technical school.
This objective of finding suitable jobs includes helping veteran entrepreneurs or those too disabled to maintain conventional employment develop and become self-employment business owners.
For veterans with service-connected disabilities so severe that they cannot immediately consider work, VR&E offers services to improve their ability to live as independently as possible. This is called the Independent Living Program.
VA Vocational Rehabilitation is one of the hidden gems that veterans can turn to when looking for assistance in finding work, getting benefits and training to help start life on the right foot.
It is important to understand what benefits you can receive, how you qualify and the active role you take in the process.
VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment
When you talk about the program, be aware it may be referenced using different terms or names depending on who you speak to, but most VA employees will understand what you mean if you mention any of the following:
- VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE)
- Vocational Rehabilitation
- Voc Rehab
- VocRehab (no space between terms)
- Chapter 31 Voc Rehab
- Chapter 31
“Chapter 31” is a reference to the statutory law creating the entitlement to the program and wherein program requirements can be found. 38 USC § 3100 = Chapter 31. Any of these terms generally references the same federal vocational program.
There are also state-funded vocational rehabilitation programs managed through the Department of Labor that may also be referenced as Vocational Rehabilitation but meaning a state program.
Short List of VA Vocational Rehabilitation services you might receive.
When working with VA’s program, called VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, or Voc Rehab for short, you can receive a variety of benefits. It is for veterans who have a disability that was caused while serving in the United States military.
These disabled veterans can receive vocational benefits such as:
- Comprehensive evaluation to determine abilities, skills, and interests for employment
- Vocational counseling and rehabilitation planning for employment services
- Employment services such as job-training, job-seeking skills, resume development, and other work readiness assistance
- Assistance finding and keeping a job, including the use of special employer incentives and job accommodations
- On the Job Training (OJT), apprenticeships, and non-paid work experiences
- Post-secondary training at a college, vocational, technical or business school
- Supportive rehabilitation services including case management, counseling, and medical referrals
- Independent living services for Veterans unable to work due to the severity of their disabilities
The most common retraining service veterans receive is long-term education through colleges or universities. Vocational objectives, commonly called occupational goals, can range from X-ray technician to professor to doctor depending on a variety of factors I will address below.
Who is eligible for VA Vocational Rehabilitation benefits?
The question of who is eligible for VA Vocational Rehabilitation benefits is not always straightforward for veterans with outlier cases or nuanced facts. Here is a summary of the quick, high-level points but keep in mind the regulations and policies, if applied correctly, can open up entitlement for a variety of other veterans, too.
High-Level Voc Rehab Eligibility
- Have a disability rating of at least 10%
- Have a discharge that is not “dishonorable”
- Apply for the benefits you seek
Active Duty Servicemembers are eligible if they:
- Expect to receive an honorable or other than dishonorable discharge upon separation from active duty
- Obtain a memorandum rating of 20% or more from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and
- Apply for VR&E services
Or (until September 30, 2018)
- Are participating in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) or are certified by the military as having a severe injury or illness that may prevent them from performing their military duties
- Apply for VR&E services, and
- Report for an evaluation with a VR&E counselor before separating from active duty
Veterans are eligible if they:
- Have received a discharge that is other than dishonorable
- Have a service-connected disability rating of at least 10% from VA
- A 10% rating requires a finding from Voc Rehab that you have a Serious Employment Handicap
- A 20% rating requires a finding from Voc Rehab that you have an Employment Handicap
- Apply for VR&E services
In most circumstances, disabled veterans can use Voc Rehab once they have at least a 10 percent disability rating so long as they have a “serious employment handicap” or a 20 percent disability rating so long as they have an “employment handicap.”
Active duty military personnel can apply before they exit the military if they are in the process of securing a disability rating.
Basic period of Eligibility
The basic period of eligibility ends 12 years from the date of notification of one of the following:
- Date of separation from active military service, or
- Date the Veteran was first notified by VA of a service-connected disability rating.
It is important to note the above “basic period of eligibility” explanation is not complete, but it is the one provided by VA to veterans and could result in many veterans being deceived about entitlement.
First, the 12-year entitlement is not what it appears to be at first glance.
As a rule, the veteran has 12 years from the date of separation, but that time is essentially tolled, ie it does not start ticking until VA provides the veteran with notice of a qualifying service-connected disability rating. That is just one of many exceptions.
The goal of the initial process before the first appointment is for Voc Rehab to determine if you are eligible for benefits. Some veterans are improperly denied Voc Rehab benefits and services due to incorrect adjudications based on the above.
If you are denied, it is important to carefully review the basis of the denial letter to ensure accuracy and that the determination is consistent with VA regulations and statutes.
What happens after you are found eligible for VA Vocational Rehabilitation services?
Vocational Rehabilitation, once the individual has been found eligible, starts with the evaluation of the individual. The rehabilitation counselor works closely with the service member or veteran to identify his or her: present level of skill, various interests, job goals and personal questions.
After applying and being found eligible, the veteran is scheduled to meet with a VRC for a comprehensive evaluation to determine if he/she is entitled to services. A comprehensive evaluation includes:
- An assessment of the Veteran’s interests, aptitudes, and abilities
- An assessment of whether service connected disabilities impair the Veteran’s ability to find and/or hold a job using the occupational skills he or she has already developed
- Vocational exploration and goal development leading to employment and/or maximum independence in the Veteran’s daily living at home and in the community
This process is sometimes conducted by the same vocational counselor, or it is sometimes augmented by a contractor VA hires to help evaluate your case.
Entitlement to VA Vocational Rehabilitation services and benefits.
During the first meeting, the VA counselor will take in information about the veteran’s employment history and disabilities to make an entitlement determination. Many errors can occur during this process resulting in the veteran being wrongly denied based on errors of fact or law, so it is important to be prepared for this meeting.
What is a veteran’s Entitlement Determination?
A counselor works with the veteran to complete a determination if an employment handicap exists.
An employment handicap exists if the Veteran’s service-connected disability impairs his or her ability to obtain and maintain suitable employment. This type of determination is not the same as evaluating whether a person can obtain and maintain “a job,” which is what the VA.gov website tells veterans.
Most veterans can score “a job” as a Walmart greeter or construction worker or forklift driver, but that type of job may not be “suitable employment,” which is an important distinction many counselors mistake.
As noted above, entitlement to services is established if the veteran has an employment handicap and is within his or her 12-year basic period of eligibility and has a 20 percent or greater service-connected disability rating. Or, if the veteran has a 10 percent rating, that impairment must be deemed to result in a “serious employment handicap.”
A serious employment handicap is based on the extent and complexity of services required to help a Veteran to overcome the significant restrictions caused by his or her service and non-service connected disabilities, permitting the return to suitable employment.
It is important to make note of the combination of both service-connected disabilities and non-service-connected disabilities. Voc Rehab consistently forgets to consider the latter and often erroneously denies veterans benefits due to that persistent mistake.
In the event that a veteran is found to be ineligible, the counselor will help them to find other agencies or resources that can help them on the path to a new career.
Next steps after the Entitlement Determination is made.
The veteran and Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor work together to:
- Determine transferable skills, aptitudes, and interests
- Identify viable employment and/or independent living services options
- Explore labor market and wage information
- Identify physical demands and other job characteristics
- Explore vocational options to identify a suitable employment goal
- Select a VR&E program track leading to an employment or independent living goal
- Investigate training requirements
- Identify resources needed to achieve rehabilitation
- Develop an individualized rehabilitation plan to achieve the identified employment or independent living goals
The counselor sits down with the veteran and shares information regarding the state of the current job market, pay information and goes over which services the person is eligible for.
The plan laid out may be simple, focusing on resume preparation and interviewing skills.
Others will require a longer term, more in-depth plan that may include job training, pursuing a new degree, help with identifying potential employers and on the job supports.
The job opportunities may include direct placement in a position or even helping the individual to become self-employed.
The counselor also helps the veteran or service member to identify various resources that can help the individual to find a job. This may be various online job sites that a resume can be posted on or those to help improve current job skills. The counselor may also help to find additional resources related to housing, medical and financial needs, depending on the veteran’s present situation and disability rating.
Once a reasonable goal is established, the veterans and Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor work together to develop a rehabilitation plan.
What is a Vocational Rehabilitation Rehabilitation Plan?
A rehabilitation plan is an individualized, written plan of services, which outlines the resources and criteria that will be used to achieve employment or independent living goals.
The plan is an agreement that is signed by the veteran and the Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor and is updated as needed to assist the Veteran to achieve his/her goals.
Depending on their circumstances, Veterans will work with their Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor to select one of the following five tracks of services (see definitions for more detail):
- Reemployment (with a former employer)
- Direct job placement services for new employment
- Employment through long-term services including OJT, college, and other training
- Independent living services
One consistent error veterans fall into frequently is signing a rehabilitation plan they do not agree with or one that is pushed onto them by a counselor. If you do not understand or agree with the plan, do not sign it.
This is no different than a contract for services with any service provider in any scenario in the real world; once the rehabilitation plan is signed, you do not get a redo.
Instead, you can request to change the plan later, but changing the plan is marked by pitfalls and difficulties. So, it is vital to get it right the first time.
Once the Rehabilitation Plan is developed, then what?
After a plan is developed and signed, a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor or case manager will continue to work with the Veteran to implement the plan to achieve suitable employment and/or independent living.
The Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor or case manager will provide ongoing counseling, assistance, and coordinate services such as tutorial assistance, training in job-seeking skills, medical and dental referrals, adjustment counseling, payment of training allowance, if applicable, and other services as required to help the Veteran achieve rehabilitation.
Said a different way, once the veteran is placed in a job role or starts continuing education, the counselor stays with through the entire process. This includes checking in with the individual periodically to see how he or she is progressing and seeing if additional resources need to be brought in.
Vocational rehabilitation can help the active service member or veteran with a disability to find the necessary resources to get started on a new career path. Taking an active part in the process helps the veteran to get the most out of this opportunity.
What about the higher GI Bill subsistence payment or stipend?
In most cases, the GI Bill rate is higher than the regular Chapter 31 Voc Rehab rate of pay. This pay is loosely referenced as a “stipend” or “subsistence pay” by veterans.
A veteran participating in Voc Rehab who qualifies for GI Bill benefits can elect to receive the GI Bill rate of pay instead of the regular chapter 31 Voc Rehab subsistence allowance. For a single veteran without dependents, the difference for someone in Minneapolis is:
- $617.40 Voc Rehab Stipend, or
- $1,799 GI Bill
This is just an example to illustrate how different the pay amount is per month between the two programs, so opting for the higher GI Bill stipend is significant.
To elect the GI Bill rate, the Veteran must have remaining eligibility for the GI Bill, and must formally choose (or “elect”) the GI Bill rate in writing.
Your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor can help you with the election.
Veterans participating in VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program who elect the GI Bill rate are paid at the 100% rate level for their school and training time, even if their GI Bill eligibility is less than 100%.
Additional benefits are also available through the Voc Rehab program, such as payment of all required books, fees and supplies as well as other supportive services.
Take a few minutes to learn about VA Disability and Vocational Rehabilitation Services.