The virtual All Committee Conference of the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) concluded yesterday after two full days of discussions over all things workers’ comp. One of the things discussed in two of the sessions was the concept of “grading” the industry on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the speakers gave the industry overall high marks, but one thing was not clear to me from the various remarks. Were we grading on the pivot, or are we grading on a curve?

The answer may become quite different, depending on that factor.

A “pivot” is the ability to quickly and decisively change course based on the changing environment one finds themselves in. About 20 years ago, my father-in-law was spending the afternoon at our house. We had been lounging in the pool, and he was floating on a rather large “pool chair” style float that we owned. Dark and ominous storm clouds started to gather, and as they rapidly approached, we decided it was time to get out of the pool and go inside. My wife and I easily exited the pool, only to turn and watch my father-in-law fidget and struggle to get off the raft. Turns out that is somewhat difficult when you are in your mid-seventies and you are trying to keep the cigar clutched in your dominant hand dry. I stepped back into the pool, down a few steps, and reached out to help him. Just as he took my hand, there was a blinding flash and simultaneously thundering clap. Something just beyond our backyard took a direct lightning hit. It was a startling moment, and I almost instantly realized that I was suddenly alone in the pool. I turned to see my father-in-law behind me, firmly on dry land. I don’t think his feet ever hit the water. He had pivoted when the environment suddenly changed and was able to do things at a level of speed and competence previously thought unattainable.

For many in the industry, that will be the legend of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the incredibly conservative and risk averse workers’ compensation industry would fidget and struggle to change procedure or direction. We were cautious (read: slow) to adopt and embrace new technologies, or to change processes in any significant way. In many ways we were like my father-in-law that day; knowing we needed to reposition and move but reluctant to risk getting our cigar wet. COVID was the lightning strike that changed that, virtually overnight. The entire industry became remote in one single sweep. We immediately incorporated new technologies. To paraphrase one SAWCA presenter, “On Friday we went home thinking telemedicine was evil. On Monday morning it was the best thing ever.” By and large we kept the checks and benefits coming, while enduring a raft of new regulations and bracing for an onslaught of unexpected claims. Yes, to grade on the pivot, the industry gets very high marks indeed.

Many classes, however, are not based on straight individual performance, however. As you likely know, many teachers grade on a curve, where the performance of all the players can affect one’s overall score. To that end, there were pockets of concern from the fallout of COVID-19. While private industry generally performed exceedingly well given the circumstances, some entities struggled to adapt. The public sector fared worse, overall. While many state regulatory agencies did their best to adapt and pivot quickly, some simply couldn’t. To this day there are some whose court systems are still shut down, or barely operating. This is not necessarily the fault of the regulators or the people in their agencies. State operations are burdened with antediluvian oversight and restrictions forced on them by legislature or executive decree. Many have archaic provisioning systems that don’t allow for flexibility when it is needed. Public entities were overall less prepared to pivot when needed, and if we are grading on a curve, that affects the entire industry.

After all, we are only as effective as our weakest link. Both private and public entities that fared poorly in COVID affect the overall grade our industry would receive.  

The good news is that much has been learned from the pandemic. We were wholly unprepared for such an event but responded in a manner that should make us proud. There is a scene in the movie Apollo 13, where engineers are discussing the possibility that they will not be able to save the three astronauts stranded in space. Mission Director Gene Kranz stood proudly at that moment, and said, “Gentlemen, I disagree. I believe this will be our finest hour.”

We may not realize it at this point, but COVID and the pandemic it brought will be viewed in history as workers’ compensation’s “finest hour.” We have incorporated new process and technique and are embracing new technologies. We were forced to shake off the fear of change and continue moving forward through the vastly unknown. We also identified weaknesses and areas of improvement that must be made the next time something like this occurs. Overall, we can agree with the various panelists of SAWCA. Workers’ Comp gets an A+ on the pivot, slightly less on the curve. 

Here is hoping there are many years before we need to pass that test again.

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