Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Don't Know Anything But Driving a Truck

In August at the Workers' Compensation Institute's annual conference in Orlando, FL, I am part of a panel that will discuss current trends in workers' compensation and what that portends for the industry.

As we all know, there are many permutations to the workers' compensation industry and usually when someone talks about trends they mean trends in claims - and for good reason because that is where a big chunk of the money goes.

But there are other trends, some subtle, some not so, that affect other aspects of the industry.

And one of them, which scares me and should you, is that people aren't going back to work.

The Great Recession, as this past economic downturn is now being called, resulted in an unprecedented number of people going on some form of disability system - many of them via workers' compensation.

The Wall Street Journal on Sunday ran a story "Workers Stuck in Disability Stunt Economic Recovery."

According to the story, the latest unemployment report showing a four-year low of 7.6%, which would normally reflect job growth in the economy, actually reflects workers leaving the workforce in favor of disability.

And economists in the story opined that relatively few people are going to trade in their disability status for paychecks because such programs don't provide much incentive to do so.

"Economists have found that more people apply for disability during periods of high unemployment, partly because they can't find work. Ailments they might endure during good times are instead used as an avenue out of the labor force," the article states.

The anecdote provided in the WSJ article is of a truck driver who quips that he's not happy about being on disability because "it kind of reminds me of welfare" but paradoxically follows that with a statement that he is afraid to leave the disability program because it feels like "a blanket covering you, and to walk out from it ... at my age, it's a little intimidating."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, David Autor, who has studied the disability program, says that the disability roster is filled with low-wage earners who have limited skills and consequently they are "pretty unlikely to want to forfeit economic security for a precarious job market."

According to the WSJ article, since the start of the recession in 2008, more people have gone on disability, on net, than new workers have joined the labor force.

Canadian journalist, Colby Cosh, in Maclean's magazine, penned a biting criticism, "Disabled America: where work is for suckers."

Noting that in Canada and Europe there has been some attention paid to recalibrating disability systems, in the United States our systems are black and white - can work or can't work. "This discourages any return to self-sufficiency: once an American starts drawing disability they will move mountains to evade any job in the above-ground economy."

And in yesterday's Wall Street Journal the headline read, "Good News, More People Are Quitting Jobs" noting that while unemployment remains high, more businesses are having difficulty finding workers, primarily because there are fewer who are qualified for the positions open.

Or perhaps because there are fewer willing to work...

This is a deeply troubling trend that goes well beyond claims or the cost of these claims - fewer workers means lower payrolls, which means lower premiums, which means that the nation's insurance carriers will have less to work with, which means rates go up, which means employers pay more, which begets more meaningless work comp reform, which ... you get the picture and it's not pretty.

Jason Turner, Executive Director of the Secretary's Innovation Group, is on a panel at a two day conference this month in Washington, DC sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, examining issues inherent with disability programs. In his former role as a state welfare reformer, reviewing the dysfunctional welfare system of cash benefits with no obligations at all he said - - "For those who can work, only work should pay."

The truck driver in the WSJ story said, after getting approval for disability, that he considered looking for another line of work, but "I don't know anything but driving a truck."

In other words, this truck driver "can't work."

At some point in time, if workers' compensation, or any other disability program - state, federal, private - is to overcome the cultural demise of the American Work Ethic, the reward system inherent in being disabled needs to be re-engineered.

We, as a society and a culture, figured out how to determine how much money a person receives for being "disabled." That's become nearly a science with the AMA Guides, rating formulas, indemnity ratios, etc.

How about we take all that knowledge and science we've generated studying dis-ability and get together and figure out incentives for being "abled?"

My guess is that a truck driver who doesn't know anything but driving a truck would find a whole new set of skills if the motivations were realigned.


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  2. I was at the board the other day.... I learned that vouchers are just being settled out for a discounted rate so insurance companies can close their files... So, rehab is not happening!

    I talked to some attorneys, and I think I am the only one in the country who has this combo.... and if not, there is just one hand full to go around who have college admissions counseling and workers' comp backgrounds to work with.

    I have told applicant attorneys that I can help retrain an individual who wants to serious retrain and go back to school, and add on federal funding to assist them in addition to their award.

    One attorney told me it is a waste of time, but I think I have something that people need to be aware of. If an injured employee can not go back to work, and they want to retrain, I have designed a program that can help them get the training they need, get the funding to do it cause they probably dont have a lot to work with... and get into a new career where they can thrive.

    Why are insurance companies allowed to just settle out the VR. there is a purpose for those vouchers, and my fees are only a portion of what they get... I think the insurance companies are being self absorbed and only looking out for what is good for them.. Cheaper for settle, and they don't care what happens to these people or their clients.