The national bloggers panel at the California Coalition of Workers’ Compensation Annual Conference, held in Anaheim, CA on Wednesday, appears to have been a success. At least no one threw anything at us, and that is the stringent criteria I use to classify an appearance as a smashing success. I and my fellow panelists, David Depaolo, Peter Rousmaniere, and Julius Young, with the firm moderating guidance of Safety National’s Mark Walls, spent an hour telling the audience what they already knew. California’s workers’ comp system is expensive, inefficient and screwed up. But at least they learned they weren’t alone. Other states are screwed up, too. California just does screwed up better than everybody else.

It was a lively discussion, and we seemed to be largely on target, until, that is, Peter Rousmaniere drove us off the rails. 

I really like Rousmaniere. A friendly and extraordinarily intelligent person, he displays an innate inquisitiveness and perpetual curiosity, wrapped in a somewhat rumpled northeast professorial persona. But the extreme challenge he laid before the audience and the panel took us all a bit by surprise. Perhaps it was because he spent three days on a train to get here. He might have been suffering from a mobile form of cabin fever.

About halfway through the session, Rousmaniere told the audience, comprised largely of employers in the state, that he wanted to issue both to them and his fellow bloggers a challenge. He first warmed up the room by telling how much he loved California. He said they were “like France”, in that they were “classy, beautiful, elegant and completely without sense”. He proceeded to say that workers’ comp was irreparably damaged in California, and that the best thing to do with it was “blow it up” and “chop off it’s head”. He then urged us all to “come up with a better idea” that would better serve injured workers’ in the state. He then proceeded to give us his suggestion for what they could do.

He started off by recommending what sounded much like the new Oklahoma Opt Out plan. Initially he called it the “Costco” plan (I have no idea why) but quickly modified it to the “Safeway” plan, in deference to the presence of Bill Zachary, VP of Risk Management for that company, who was in the audience. Lucky Bill. The Safeway plan, according to Peter, would require employers to set up their own ERISA style program to care for their injured workers. 

Ok, so far, so good. The train was rocking heavily, but we were still on the tracks.

Then he shifted into enforcement of these new mandated self styled employer plans. He indicated there would be legal standards that must be met, and would be enforced by the state. He added that class action suits, and what he termed as “massive” government fines, could be deployed to make sure employers tow the line and do the right thing. He then declared that those employees working for smaller operations could still be covered by the “regular way” – presumably the system we just blew up and left for dead in Barstow. 

Now, I’ve done my fair share of public speaking in the last few years, and I can assure you that nothing is more warmly received by a room full of employers than the gentle notion of class action suits and “massive” government fines. It really warms the cockles of their heart. Brings a tear to the eye.

I suppose we were fortunate that Peter stopped where he did. He could have stripped off his shirt and declared that he was the Swordmaster of Azeroth. Either way, we were off the rails and rolling into the ravine.

There was a brief moment of silence while the rest of us scanned the room for the nearest exit. Quickly realizing that we were trapped, and there would not be a safe extrication, we reluctantly addressed the comments and challenge Rousmaniere laid before us. It was clear we were going to have to talk our way out of this quagmire.

And it was a good, spirited conversation. The concept of a two tier plan that provided different levels of benefits based on the size of employer did not sit well with us. We were afforded the opportunity to think outside the box at this point, talking about what we felt would make the current system better. I seized the chance to lay out my now all too familiar “Workers’ Recovery” concept, and the discussion steered to bringing a certain humanity back to workers’ comp; a humanity that needs to counter the ever increasing complexity of dehumanizing processes.

So Peter Rousmaniere didn’t derail us at all. He merely put us on a faster track to the future. I just hope he reads this far in the article to find that out, instead of stopping to call his lawyer.

It turns out that Peter’s challenge, as mismatched as it appeared given our audience, spurred a great dialogue. He is, apparently, “crazy like a fox”, in that he helped generate a different way to view the issue, and he got people thinking in a manner not previously employed.  

And when you are in a state that that is “classy, beautiful, elegant and completely without sense”, can that be a bad thing?

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