President’s Letter, April 2020
Good tidings, fellow adjudicators. I hope this finds you all well, in good spirits, and optimistic for the future, notwithstanding all that March has thrown at us. This missive will be a little longer than normal, and I apologize, but there is a lot to talk about . . .
March is often described as coming in like a lion, and going out like a lamb. March, indeed, came roaring in, disrupting life beyond all expectations. The NAWCJ Boot Camp for new and newer judges, scheduled for March 5 and 6 in Nashville, had to be canceled at the last minute when Mother Nature unleashed an EF3 tornado on Middle Tennessee in the late evening hours of Monday, March 2, and early morning hours of Tuesday, March 3, wreaking havoc, causing extensive damage and the loss of several lives.
The Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, which was to host the Boot Camp, was undamaged, but left without power. The Nashville team, led by the Hon. Pam Johnson and the Hon. Ken Switzer, leapt into action and secured an alternative venue for the Boot Camp at Lipscomb University. Unfortunately, the hotels surrounding the Bureau, where faculty and attendees were to stay during the Boot Camp, were also left without power. Even if they were able to get to Nashville for the Boot Camp, faculty and attendees would have had no place to stay. NAWCJ was forced to make the difficult decision to cancel. For a lot of reasons, rescheduling the Boot Camp for this year proved unworkable. We’ll try to recruit the Boot Camp registrants for the August judiciary college in Orlando, and we’ll endeavor to host the Boot Camp again in the Spring of 2021.
While the Boot Camp didn’t happen, Judges Pam Johnson and Ken Switzer, along with the rest of the Tennessee NAWCJ contingent, all deserve our recognition and thanks. The Boot Camp was well-designed, with a great curriculum and an array of impressive speakers, and preparations were well-executed. It would have been an outstanding program, but for the knuckleballs hurled our way by Mother Nature. Thanks also to the many speakers who volunteered their time to present to the new judges. They sacrificed their time and energy preparing discussions, materials and PowerPoints, and they sacrificed their own dockets to permit their presence in Nashville. Calling off the Boot Camp left the faculty scrambling to cancel their own travel plans, and filling the voids in their own calendars. Their sacrifices should not, and cannot, be forgotten or taken for granted.
Mother Nature wasn’t (and apparently still isn’t) done with us yet, as the developing Coronavirus pandemic followed on the heels of the Nashville tornado. The pandemic was already in the news in the waning days of February, and the Boot Camp committee had discussed how to respond if attendees were forced to cancel because of state-imposed travel restrictions. There were no cancellations due to Coronavirus as the Boot Camp neared, but Mother Nature nevertheless intervened to force a change in our plans.
The pandemic is now front and center. On the continuum of current reactions to the pandemic, it is hard to discern where a rational, reasonable response stops and an irrational panic begins. Some with a national soapbox dismiss the pandemic outright, claiming it is being used as a political tool, and encourage us to go about our business as usual, while others urge us to become hermits in our homes. Sporting events, national meetings and even elections have been canceled. The travel and service industries are being savaged. Everything from sanitizer, to cleaning supplies, to toilet paper, is being hoarded.
Here in Kansas, we have gone into a virtual lockdown. Effective Wednesday, March 18, all state offices were closed to the public and, and for the foreseeable future, ALL workers’ compensation hearings, mediations and conferences are being conducted by telephone or videoconference. I have now been told that I am to work from home for at least two weeks, beginning March 23. The state has canceled all non-essential travel, including within the state. The schools are closed, events have been or are being canceled, and workers are being advised to avoid restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and public gatherings. State-hosted indoor conferences of 30 or more and outdoor conferences of 100 or more have all been canceled. (I’m not sure how many “outdoor conferences of 100 or more” were scheduled, as it’s usually still pretty COLD in Kansas in March, but that’s what the memo says . . .) As I write this, similar steps have been announced by Florida, Virginia and Missouri. I’m certain more will follow suit.
We’re adapting. I already use telephone conferences and GoToMeeting for many hearings and conferences, and CourtCall for more extensive proceedings. I consider CourtCall to be an extremely valuable resource: CourtCall lets me know when someone wants to appear by CourtCall, their staff checks to make sure the participants have the requisite technology (web access, a webcam and a microphone), and they then provide me with a written docket a day in advance. On the day of the hearing, a CourtCall technician ques the participants, and lets me know when they are ready. The technician remains on the line throughout out the hearing, so as to respond immediately if there is a technical issue. In short, CourtCall does the heavy lifting and delivers it to my door.
While I am comfortable with the technology, many of the attorneys that appear before me are less enthused. (I still have some attorneys who need their secretaries to place phone calls for them. Remember Perry Mason telling Della Street to get Paul Drake on the line? Oh, wait. Most of you are probably too young to know who Perry Mason was. Never mind.) The mandate for hearings by telephone/videoconference will be difficult for some, but will force a confrontation with modern technology and, perhaps, a reckoning as to the benefits available (e.g., less wasted “windshield time”).
What is your state/agency doing? How are you adapting? Folks, we’re all in this mess together. While our laws, rules and procedures may vary from state to state, we all have to find a way to get claims heard and decisions made. We cannot close up shop and go into seclusion. People are still working (they must!), people are still getting hurt (or still need indemnity benefits and treatment for past injuries/occupational illnesses), and their problems won’t just go away. There is, and will be, work for us to do. We have to find a way to work within the rules where possible, “bend” the rules where necessary, or find entirely new ways to respond to the current crisis, to ensure that workers’ compensation claims are heard and determined in a meaningful and timely fashion.
If you or your agency are doing something innovative, please share it with all of us. None of us is so knowledgeable that we cannot learn. The tornado that devastated middle Tennessee forced the Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to confront the need to address claims and conduct hearings when their main offices were out of commission. They either had, or developed on the fly, a COO (continuity of operations) plan that enabled them to shift duties and responsibilities within the state and keep the business of the Bureau flowing. They responded to the crisis—they didn’t whine and complain.
The Tennessee tornado and the Coronavirus pandemic are only two of the potential crises that could interrupt our lives and work. There are innumerable others. We all need to engage in some reflection: What can I/we do to ensure that litigants before us have their (timely) day in court, and decisions reached? If our state/agency doesn’t have a COO plan, it’s high time we started working on one. If the state/agency does have a plan, how does it impact satellite offices? What if only one office, a satellite office—yours—is affected? Do you have a local plan? Regardless of whether there is a state/agency plan, we can and must assess our local resources and abilities, and be prepared to respond. “Stuff” happens, and we are rarely given forewarning. The time to act is before the crisis. If the crisis beats us to the punch, we have to learn and adapt on the fly, so that we are better prepared next time. There will be a next time. What’s your COO plan?
Meanwhile, plans and preparations for the thirteenth annual NAWCJ Judiciary College, August 16-19, 2020, are ramping up. The curriculum is set, speakers have been secured and confirmed, and preparations are shifting to the logistical challenges of making it all happen. We’re all looking forward to seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and keeping attuned to changes affecting workers’ compensation across this nation.
I note that WCI (Workers’ Compensation Institute) is closely monitoring the Coronavirus pandemic. WCI is a nonprofit educational organization that sponsors the annual Workers’ Compensation Educational Conference in Orlando, of which the NAWCJ Judiciary College is but a small but significant component. I hope and trust that the pandemic threat will have abated by late July, and that the conference (and judiciary college) will go on as scheduled. Hope springs eternal.
If you are planning on joining us in Orlando in August, I repeat my entreaty that you consider coming a day or two early and volunteering—either at the GKTW (Give Kids the World) work day on Saturday, August 15, or the E. Earle Zehmer Moot Court Competition on Sunday, August 16. Better yet, come and do both! If you are interested in the GKTW work day, please email NAWCJ Past President John Lazzara at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in judging for the E. Earle Zehmer Moot Court Competition, please contact Amie DeGuzman at Adeguzman@jaxlegalhelp.com.
I’ve taken too much of your time. We all have things that we need to do. Let’s do them.
“Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” Marian Wright Edelman.
Take care, keep well, and fulfill your purpose.
Until next month,