Whoever created the old adage, “What you don't know can't hurt you” probably didn't know what they were talking about. At the very least they had no familiarity with the workers' compensation industry, I can assure you. I thought about this during a recent lunch with a Sarasota Employment Law attorney.
I first met Christine Sensenig through a connection request on LinkedIn, and then in person when she and her husband attended a Sertoma charity fundraiser I was chairing. Recently we met for lunch to talk about the industry and the obstacles we face. As we talked about challenges here in Florida and elsewhere in the land, the topic turned to employers, as well as a general lack of knowledge that many of them possess when it comes to workers' comp. I've been well aware of employer's ignorance when it comes to our industry. In fact it is a primary point of some of my articles and many of my speaking presentations, yet in this discussion Sensenig told me something that surprised me.
She rightly advocates to employers she works with that they stay engaged with their injured workers while they are off the job. She advises them to call, send a card, a gift card or even a fruit basket; something to say to the injured worker “We care and we want you back”. I agree with her completely on this point, as the absence of communication from the employer after an injury can be a primary contributor to eventual litigation of a case. In that absence of information, negative thoughts and emotions will grow to fill the void, and an expensive void it can be – for everyone involved.
The surprise for me came when Sensenig indicated that many of these employers wanted to take action and were willing to reach out, but they did not think they were allowed to. She said that many of them have said, “I didn't know I could do that.” Surprisingly we are not talking about litigated claims here; this belief applies to early stage claims where the employee does not yet have an attorney. Still, once they are handed off to an insurance company and TPA, some employers apparently believe they must be “hands off” in the process. They don't know that they can and should be actively involved.
And what they don't know can and will hurt them.
Employers, particularly those who do not self insure, are a key yet largely non-participating component in a workers' injury and recovery process. We know that common complaints from injured workers' include that they are instantly, or soon thereafter, ignored and neglected by their employer, and often their co-workers as well. This is especially troubling when workers' were accustomed to socializing with those fellow employees; they have lost both a secure connection to their job as well as their social support system. If employers somehow have the notion or belief that they cannot communicate with the employee and support them as they heal, than this is indeed a tragedy that should not have to occur. We can change that philosophy.
Workers' compensation was formed through a grand bargain to serve and protect two simple groups; employers and the people who work for them. Over the years the industry has evolved into a very complex mechanism, with thousands of entities, insurance companies, TPA's, doctors, lawyers and a multitude of vendors now cluttering the middle ground of workers' compensation. I believe that our industry, through excessive process and legislative overkill, now impedes the very communications that could vastly improve its outcomes.
I was attending a conference recently and was seated next to a Canadian Workers' Comp Board CEO during a session discussing legal issues in workers' comp. The dialogue turned to the difficulties of discussing a workers' medical needs when they are represented by legal counsel. The claims person on the panel described the potential weeks of delay while they attempted to coordinate a meeting that would satisfy all the parties; the doctor, the lawyer, the case manager, etc. (no one mentioned the injured worker, as they are irrelevant to this process, apparently). The Canadian WCB CEO, whose monopolistic system does not allow attorneys or litigation, sat completely stunned by what he was hearing. And in abstract, it was indeed a ridiculous discussion – but it was a discussion repeated thousands of times a day around our nation. Our system no longer fosters or accommodates simple and much needed communication between the two key groups it is supposed to serve.
And whether they are aware of it or not, employers are paying for this egregious condition.
However, employers can take simple steps to improve outcomes by simply following the common sense approach Sensenig advocates. Call your workers after the accident. Visit them. Send them a gift, and make sure someone is appointed to keep in contact with them. Sensenig even suggested that a carrier (or employer) could make great strides with a worker who is injured in a location far from home by flying their spouse to be by their side. She said, “Don't you think they'll have second thoughts about suing someone who did that for them?”
We as an industry must educate employers to this need (after all, sheet metal shop owners do not represent a huge percentage of my readership, and therefore are denied the benefits of my wisdom). Insurance carriers and TPA's should have formal programs encouraging employers to follow these suggestions. We know it can make a difference, and we have an obligation to communicate that to the people we serve.
In many cases employers just don't know that they can: Can contact their workers, can ease their concerns, and can make a difference leading to a more positive outcome for all – a recovered worker who is back on the job.
Because in the world of workers' comp, it is what you do not know that will definitely hurt everyone involved.