By Hon. Bruce E. Moore (Kansas)
On Wednesday, September 23, 2020 and Thursday, September 24, 2020, I had the honor and privilege to represent NAWCJ by participating in two sessions of the International Association of Accident Boards and Commissions’ 106th Annual Conference, held virtually through Zoom.
In the Judicial Program session on September 23, 2020, a joint presentation of NAWCJ and IAIABC, NAWCJ Past President Jennifer Hopens, in conjunction with Virginia Deputy Commissioner Debbie Blevins, introduced a panel consisting of Administrative Law Judges Sharon Reeves of Georgia and Doug Gott of Kentucky, Assistant Chief Industrial Appeals Judge Knowrasa Patrick of Washington, Scott Beck, Chairman of the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission, and me. The panel then undertook to collectively field questions and comments from conference attendees during and after presentation of NAWCJ’s previously recorded video, “Virtual Hearings: A Practicum.” The video is an edited recording of two sessions of a panel discussion regarding some of the different ways states had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic through provision of “virtual hearings,” hearings conducted by various telephone conferencing and videoconferencing platforms. Reeves, Gott, Patrick, and Beck, along with Florida Judge of Compensation Claims Sylvia Medina-Shore, had participated, with me moderating, in creating the video, but Judge Medina-Shore was unable to participate in the IAIABC Judicial Program on September 23.
The NAWCJ video was well-received, with active “chat” discussions throughout. The entire session was recorded by IAIABC and will be available on the IAIABC website. The NAWCJ video may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-4SKa6Y7TI.
The IAIABC Judicial Program continued on September 24, 2020, with another panel discussion, this time regarding COVID-19 presumptions. The panel discussion was presented by Fellows of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers. Fellows Bert Randall of Baltimore, Maryland, Catherine Surbeck of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I participated in the panel discussion, with Fellow James H. Gallen of St. Louis moderating, in which we explored different perspectives on the use of presumptions in the COVID-19 pandemic. We noted that two states, Florida and Illinois, had adopted a presumption by administrative action; six states, Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota, had adopted presumptions by executive order; and nine states, Alaska, California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming, had adopted presumptions by legislative action. The remaining states have no presumptions (at present).
Recognizing that the text and scope of each of the state’s presumptions is different, the interpretation of which will similarly vary by state, and the pandemic is still on-going, I believe a consensus was reached that we are too early in the process to know what impact presumptions will ultimately have, if any. We don’t know how many COVID-19 claims there will be, what the total cost will be, and we have as yet had no appellate review of challenges to the presumptions. We also acknowledged that some COVID-19 claims had been accepted by various carriers and employers, without regard to the existence of a presumption. In short, time will tell. I think we also agreed that the better practice would be to develop the evidentiary record to provide as much factual support for, and against, identifying the employment as the actual source of contracting COVID-19, rather than just relying on presumptions.
This was my first experience with a virtual conference, and I did not know what to expect. I confess that I dreaded sitting alone for hours at my computer, passively listening to the various presentations, without any stimulating personal interaction. (I regret that I did not participate in the August WCI virtual seminar for that very reason.) One of the more pleasurable aspects of attending and speaking at a conference is the opportunity to meet and connect with other attendees and speakers. I was apprehensive about the absence of that personal connection and whether the whole process would be too tedious.
I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with IAIABC virtual conference. It was well designed and developed, and Keri Lore and the IAIABC staff had clearly done their homework to ensure that the subject matter of the virtual conference was engaging, and that the conference website was easy to navigate. The Zoom platform and its chat feature enabled the presenters and some of the attendees to see one another and field questions and comments in real time, providing some measure of personal contact. I would suggest that NAWCJ could learn a lot from IAIABC’S experience, as we look forward to the uncertainty of the future, and a “new world” where our annual Boot Camp and Judiciary College may have to be presented virtually, or at least have a virtual component.
While I would have preferred interacting with my fellow presenters in person, there is one advantage to a virtual conference – it’s more difficult to get stuck with a bar tab! That said, I will gladly exchange that lone advantage for the opportunity to swill a few beverages with my friends and fellow judges, at the earliest opportunity, even if I have to buy.
The need for virtual conferences, in and of itself, reinforces the imperative for my closing admonishment – wear the dang mask!