The Employer Perspective: COVID-19 Lessons Learned & Future Outlook
With no existing playbook, employers have quickly adjusted and re-adjusted to address the realities of running a business during COVID-19. In this panel at the SAWCA 72nd Annual Conference, employers shared issues, concerns, lessons learned and a vision for the future.
The panel included:
- Susan Emerson, Delta Airlines
- Tim East, The Walt Disney Company
- Chris Shaw, Wellstar Health System
- Liz Smith, Georgia Power Company
- Steve Figliuolo, Chick-fil-A
- Andrew Walker, BMW MC
- Mark Walls, Safety National (moderator)
What are some of the operational challenges that COVID-19 has brought to your companies?
Smith: We had to be adaptable. We had to make quick decisions on what employees had to remain in the office and which could work remotely. That volume of remote workers also created I.T. and connectability challenges. We just had to start with the big picture and work our way down.
Figliuolo: We are a quick service restaurant, but also have about 3,000 employees in the corporate office, so we had two issues. From corporate, we had to determine which job types could work remotely. We determined about 90% of them could. On the other hand, the restaurant brought much different challenges. The first thing we did was close down the dining rooms, but we rose to the challenge of navigating drive-thru only business rather quickly. The important thing was that we did that safely. Our team members are dealing with traffic, heat and social distancing.
Shaw: We had to look at it two-fold. Our front-line health workers have to be there to serve the community. We also determined the clinician staff probably should not work from their offices, so we had them work from home. I.T. bandwidth was a challenge at first. Also, we basically had to shut down the hospitals to anyone who was not an employee or patient, with few exceptions. With elective surgeries postponed, we had to also deal with lack of work for certain employees, redeploying them to fulfill different tasks like pre-visit screening. We also had to make the hard decision to reduce wages and furlough some employees.
Walker: We work in a manufacturing environment. We had to look at three things: 1) employees that work on assembly lines that cannot work remotely, 2) minimizing those in the facility to have people work remote who could, 3) the ability (or inability) of our tier 1 suppliers who provide us with car parts. It was extremely challenging. We had to be flexible and we evolved. We have not maintained one standard process for more than two weeks. Our focus was to keep our employees actively working, getting access to parts and keep demand up for our product.
There have been various presumptions coming out of several states related to COVID-19 claims. What are your thoughts about the presumptive issues?
East: These presumptions are expanding the definition of injury. This has put a big burden on self-insured employers. You almost have to prove a burden. Rebuttals are extremely difficult. In California, one of the largest problems is the uncertainty about the way COVID-19 spreads, which rapidly changed in the beginning. It is important for the regulatory side of the business not to introduce more uncertainty because risk managers are already handling a lot of uncertainty with our daily jobs.
Emerson: Delta really tries to error on the side of the injured worker and give them the benefit of the doubt. We dealt with safety challenges related to interacting with passengers on the plane in addition to employees having to travel and stay in hotels. We had very few claims filed in the workplace and we took them one case at a time. If there is confirmed exposure, we compared to state laws if they applied. We started 14-day COVID pay. We had booking plummet, so we had many employees take advantage of unpaid leave. To answer your question, we do not like to deal with presumptions. We take the approach that if there is a risk and they are there, we look at each individual claim to help the employee out.
Figliuolo: We formed a captive in 2019 before we had a global pandemic hit. The first question we got from the board is how COVID-19 would affect our captive and how it would affect our franchises. These people are not insurance experts, so we received a ton of questions from operators. We took each COVID-19 first report case by case to determine if it was occupational versus personal. For each case, we had to deal with varying state laws and details.
Shaw: We saw the wave slowly creeping towards the U.S. and had some conversations before our state was hit. We investigate every single case, but we determined that we can run tracer methods through our patient record system to confirm or deny if a team member treated a COVID-19 patient. The way the occupational disease statute is laid out, the employee needs to prove they caught it at work. We know that they are doing other things on their time away from work, but the likelihood is, in our case, that they probably caught it at work. We are going to do the right thing. If we fought every claim, we would not have a workforce left. When this has passed, we can also use that as a recruiting tool.
Smith: We decided we would take it on a case-by-case basis. We tried to be proactive. We have internal nurses that were initially bombarded with questions by employees. Our company does provide two weeks paid sick leave if you contract COVID-19, but we have had very few cases.
Walker: We have to determine if its community spread or workplace-related exposure. If it’s work related, we pay them instead of filing an workers’ comp claim. We encourage them to get tested and pay for that test. If they get a negative test, they are encouraged to come back to work.
How did you keep your non-COVID claims operations up and running during all of this?
Emerson: We worked with our TPA to focus on our administration. With travel down, we have taken advantage of this extra time to work with the claims teams and work on our open inventory. It has been pretty steady and unalarming so far.
Shaw: We saw a little bit of a decline. The real issue we had with our non-COVID claims was getting them medical care. The big ortho groups shut their doors. When you have an injured worker with an acute injury who needs medical care, they usually go to the emergency room. No one wanted to do that during a pandemic. The ortho groups rapidly set up telehealth, which helped. We also split adjusters, having COVID adjusters and non-COVID adjusters, and employees would deal with the appropriate adjuster accordingly.
Walker: We were not building cars, so it gave us some time to catch up on claims files. Our biggest challenge was surgeries that were put on hold. We had to extend out disability clocks for those individuals to account for those delays. We do not want to hold the associate accountable for those delays.
Smith: There have been delays. Some employees did not feel comfortable using telehealth, so those claims stalled. We did see a slight reduction in overall claims. Most of our claims are strains and sprains, so those declined since employees were not in the field as often. Other challenges we had were getting lineman to wear masks with all of the other protective gear they wear. There is also a potential for workplace violence. With some people unable to pay their electric bills right now, our employees are not always going to be met warmly at people’s homes.
East: Telemedicine exploded, so I suspect it will always be part of our claims experience moving forward.
Figliuolo: One of our biggest challenges was the lack of light duty jobs, because closing our dining rooms eliminated many of those opportunities. I am concerned what things are going to look like when it comes time to renew our insurance. Are we going to get a discount because of payroll decrease or is everything going to increase because of risk exposure? How are actuaries going to approach it?
What would you like insurance regulators to know about the cost and complexity associated with current laws?
East: I have always believed that, if you can deliver medical care that is appropriate and timely, you can return a worker back to work and have a successful outcome. Evidence-based standards are critical to do that. We implemented independent medical review, which has been extremely successful for us, and has eliminated a lot of litigation.
Smith: We have over 200 locations and every year we have to physically hang workers’ comp posters in each location. Now that remote work is increasing, I would like regulators to rethink this. Should the physical posters go digital?
Walker: South Carolina has changed the way we manage workers’ comp. I focus on what we can do to control our costs. I would ask the regulators to consider how to manage this process in a timely manner. It is so complex as it is. Let’s uncomplicated it.
Shaw: Presumptions are hard. If two employees get injured, it can go several different ways – it can be severe or fairly simple to recover. The same thing goes with COVID-19. I do not think forcing COVID-19 claims into workers’ compensation is the right thing to do. There are many variables.
Figliuolo: We pay claims that we should pay and defend against claims that we do not deem valid. Attorneys are not cheap and paying defense bills gets expensive. If we could keep the medical opinions closer to the professionals and away from litigation, that would be great. I think we need to keep them in two buckets.
Emerson: Liberal laws do not always take into consideration the employer’s point of view. We try to get the best possible outcome for our employees and avoid the path of litigation whenever possible.