Officials at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) say they will no longer authorize injured workers to attend Office Careers, pending the results of two separate reviews into the unaccredited Renton-based online school.
The move, announced Friday in a memo sent to state-contracted vocational counselors, comes in response to a three-month KING 5 investigation, which found the state paid millions of dollars to the school despite no documented history of people getting jobs after graduating with a certificate.
“Local media recently aired a series of investigative reports on Office Careers, a private vocational school. The allegations center on whether the school is adequately preparing students with the skills they need for employment,” wrote state officials in the memorandum. “L&I initiated an audit last year based on similar complaints ... Effective immediately, L&I is instituting a moratorium on approving any new retraining plans on Office Careers.”
KING’s investigation uncovered that injured workers who attend Office Careers, with their tuition paid by L&I, graduate with a certificate, but not with the skills needed to obtain a job in the area of training. Upon program completion, the state often finds the workers “employable” and cuts off their benefits.
“I felt like I was slapped in the face. I was reduced as a person,” said Angela LeClaire of Longview.
The 55-year-old was sent to Office Careers in 2018 following a serious neck injury at her place of employment. She got a certificate indicating a “successful completion” of the course to become a dispatcher. But LeClaire said she didn’t retain the information and was never given a test to prove she was capable of obtaining employment. Her benefits were cut off.
“They don’t care that your whole life and your whole existence has been turned upside down. They’re just going to shuffle you through (the course) and give you as (little) as possible,” LeClaire said.
KING 5 found that long before L&I implemented the moratorium, the state failed to act on red flags.
The warnings included complaints from attorneys who represent injured workers in the state. The trial lawyers association, The Washington State Association for Justice, has brought up concerns to top L&I officials at regularly scheduled, quarterly meetings since 2014. Several attorneys interviewed said their complaints seemed to land on deaf ears.
“What we heard is typically the refrain of: ‘If you have complaints about specific institutions, make them. If you have specific complaints about vocational counselors, make them and turn them in,’” said worker compensation attorney Brian Wright of Seattle.
Another worker compensation attorney issued a letter to an L&I official in 2008 with serious concerns about her client’s retraining program at Office Careers.
“This vocational retraining plan has failed to render my client employable,” wrote Katherine Mason, a veteran worker compensation attorney in Seattle. “It is ludicrous to propose that ... (my client) … is employable as a General Office Clerk.”
Mason went on to implore the official to look into the school.
“Rather than re-emphasizing all the specific problems (my client) encountered during her retraining, I instead ask that you please take some time to consider the retraining program itself … which took place at Office Careers in Renton.”
Labor and Industries continued to approve and pay for retraining at Office Careers. State financial records analyzed by KING show of the 377 schools used by L&I in the last 10 years, no other educational institution received more public dollars than Office Careers.
Since 2010, L&I paid Office Careers $7.1 million in tuition and fees. In that time period, public records show Edmonds Community College received the second largest amount of $5 million. Clover Park Technical College received $3.9 million, the third largest amount.
“The state knows (what’s going on),” said Rob Hall, a Vancouver, Washington-based worker compensation attorney with 40 years of experience in the field. “Worker compensation is supposed to be a trust. It’s supposed to provide sure and certain relief when they need it ... No grades, no tests (at Office Careers) — is that money you’d invest in your children?”
Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals judges across the state have issued decisions critical of Office Careers dating back to 2013. In the 15 cases where injured workers appealed L&I’s decision after getting a certificate from Office Careers which led to the termination of their benefits, the injured worker won the appeal every single time.
In the 15 decisions over the last six years, the judges determined that Office Careers did not appropriately train the worker to obtain employment in the field of study and that L&I then inappropriately cut off benefits.
“Somebody who manages litigation is seeing all those decisions,” said Hall. “The word is getting back to (L&I). It’s no secret what’s happening at the Board (of Appeals).”
Other warnings about the school came from L&I’s own expert in 2017. The agency spent approximately $10,000 on a study to uncover why private vocational schools, such as Office Careers, weren’t delivering better results.
The study’s author was critical of the school’s approach to retraining.
“The private schools that our injured workers attend most often show little or no evidence of using best practices,” wrote Karen Ahrens of L&I.
Ahrens also wrote that schools that do not produce data on job placement after graduation are “considered a problem,” and “do not work well for student success.”
The study recommended that the state limit its use of retraining programs to schools that report at least 50 percent job placement rates after graduation. Office Careers does not track if their students get jobs or not.
“To help ensure injured workers receive training that leads to a desired job, L&I should consider requiring injured workers to select education programs exclusively from the (preferred provider) list as one measure of quality,” wrote Ahrens.
To date, that hasn’t happened.
A Labor and Industries official said they have not made that recommendation mandatory because it’s difficult for many schools to provide job placement data.
“It’s challenging to figure out who’s getting a job after they graduate,” said Rich Wilson, the vocational services supervisor at L&I. "I’m truly sorry that the system failed (those workers). That’s not how it’s supposed to work. And we’re working pretty hard to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future.”
The owner of Office Careers has been critical of KING 5’s reports. In a statement provided last week, a spokesperson said the investigation was based on “significant misstatements, and a global misapprehension of what Office Careers is asked to do,” wrote the spokesperson. “What’s important to note is that we are not in control of the injured workers sent to us by the counselors who are then put through our program. In fact, since 2013 alone, over 600 students have attended Office Careers with a completion rate of more than 75%.”
The owner, David Jordan, also said they have not received complaints from students, L&I, or state regulators.
“We have no reason to believe we’re defrauding anybody or not doing a great job,” Jordan said. “So if there’s a problem, we’re not hearing about it.”
KING 5 also found L&I is not following a 10-year-old law that prohibits the state agency from using a vocational school like Office Careers for retraining. Per the law, injured workers are only to be retrained at educational institutions with a 50 percent job placement rate after graduation.
“Programs that prepare students for employment must maintain at least a thirty percent completion rate and fifty percent placement rate in jobs for which training was provided...” wrote authors of the Washington Administrative Code.
Lawmakers charged with directing public policy involving injured workers said they will be proposing legislative fixes based on findings by the KING 5 investigation.
“I’m shocked and angry and sad,” said Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), Chair of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. “It’s a recipe for disaster for people lives …We have to figure out where have things gone sideways here. What’s the reason? What’s the excuse? Let’s fix it.”
Angela LeClaire of Longview, said the pressure to get a job after attending Office Careers and then getting her benefits terminated was so disastrous that her mental health deteriorated to the point of considering suicide.
"At one point in time, I wanted to die because it’s hard. When you work so hard to earn a living and try to have a decent life and then have it all taken from you,” LeClaire said. "(The program made it worse) because I’m like ‘I don’t know computers. How am I going to do this and get a job?’”