Michael Harrington

Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington

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Vermont has been awarded a four-year, $21.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help residents who develop a potentially disabling health condition remain at work or return to work, the state Department of Labor announced Monday.

“When an illness or injury impacts one’s ability to work, it has great impact on them personally and on our workforce as a whole,” Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said in a press release. “This program, which supports Vermonters remaining or returning to work earlier in the process, brings exciting resources and approaches that can be readily integrated into the state’s COVID employment recovery plan.”

Vermont is one of five states to receive a second phase federal Retaining Employment and Talent After Injury/Illness Network (RETAIN) demonstration grant, aimed to improve work outcomes for Vermonters with injuries or illnesses. Vermont was one of eight states to receive Phase 1 funding in 2018.

Through RETAIN, 68 primary care clinics across the state will receive resources to help return workers with injuries and illnesses to work. In half of the clinics, a return-to-work coordinator, backed up by a statewide team of experts, will work one-on-one with individuals, medical providers, employers, and vocational specialists to fill the gaps that occur when people are trying to get back to work with a health issue, and to test what type of support is most helpful.

Research shows that there is a brief window of opportunity to help an individual with a work-limiting injury or illness to remain in the workforce. Once that window closes, the likelihood of an individual remaining employed is low. When an illness or injury forces a worker to exit the labor force, the loss negatively affects the health and well-being of these workers, as well as their families, employers, community, and many levels of government.

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The RETAIN program is based on evidence that this loss is often preventable and, with timely, coordinated, and effective supports, many workers could return to or remain in their jobs.

Phase 1 of the initiative allowed for the project team to conduct extensive stakeholder focus groups and expert interviews to identify physical and mental health and employer services currently available in Vermont, as well as where gaps exist.

The second phase will test the impact of the pilot program created in Phase 1. The funding will also be used to build needed best practice return-to-work services for Vermonters with a focus on equity, inclusion, accessibility, and long-term economic sustainability of the programs. This includes education, training grants, and support programs for employers, health care providers, individuals, and community partners, including creating a network of community-based sub-specialty occupational rehabilitation teams.

By combining early coordination of medical and employment support for individuals with expanded access to return-to-work services across the state, Vermont aims to affect positive lasting changes across the system to support work and health.


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