By Jack Goodchild
Happy Fourth of July! As our nation marks its 244th birthday this month, we find ourselves grappling, both on a personal as well as a societal level, with challenges that have not been seen during most of our lifetimes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to rage, seemingly uncontrolled, jeopardizing the health of hundreds of thousands of Californians and over four million of our fellow Americans. The impact of this deadly virus has been felt in the workplace across our state with historic job losses as businesses have forced to either temporarily or permanently close. For those who have been lucky enough to keep working, according to the WCIRB, the number of claims of work-related COVID-19 cases has also been on the rise since the economy has started to reopen.
Beyond the pandemic, long unaddressed calls for reforms have gained new strength as millions across America have marched and rallied together in the past several weeks in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. This movement has placed renewed focus on ensuring diversity, inclusion, racial, gender, and orientation equality and equity at all levels of society.
Our California workers’ compensation system can be a model for embracing these needed changes. As chair of the California Lawyer’s Association Workers’ Compensation Executive Committee, these issues will be on our agenda at our meetings and a topic of discussion at our seminars. Our goal will be to develop a plan of action to implement principles designed to strengthen our compensation system and the courts that administer it. This is a process which will require the engagement of our entire community.
The core of our efforts will continue to be our educational and service-minded activities. In September, the Workers’ Compensation section will be participating at the Virtual Annual Convention of the California Lawyers Association. We have already presented several virtual presentations both by webinars and community out-reach programs provided to local organizations. In preparation for the Annual Convention, we will be gearing up to provide our usual high-quality educational programs on a virtual or mixed basis until circumstances allow a return to full in-person events. More information regarding all of this will be coming in the next issue of the E-news. The Section’s Executive Committee will be holding a quarterly Zoom meeting later this month. I will report on the outcome of that meeting next month.
The administrators and judges of our workers’ compensation system have been working tirelessly to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in. Understandably and appropriately, the initial focus has been on taking care of the needs of injured workers to the greatest extent possible. We are now seeing hearings and trials conducted by phone and I am hopeful that arrangements are being made to include video as an available resource to the judges and litigants that appear before them.
There is an urgency as well to develop an alternative to the unique and very-popular walk-through procedure that was available at all the district offices of the Appeals Board throughout the state before the pandemic. To be blunt, despite the Federal Payroll Protection Program, from my discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, many law firms across the state are financially struggling. As an applicant’s attorney, such challenges have been particularly aggravated due to an uptick in orders suspending action of proposed Compromise and Releases. The current lack of a walk-through procedure has created a situation where the settling parties do not have an opportunity to contemporaneously answer any questions and concerns that the judge may have regarding the settlement as they did before the pandemic. This situation could be alleviated, and delays avoided if a process is established which would allow for daily access to the judge by the parties to a settlement. Hopefully, this will occur soon. If not, there is a real risk that many firms will need to drastically reduce costs by cutting staff and reducing office space.
Finally, a note of personal reflection. This month, I will be turning 70 years old. I have been involved in this system since the summer of 1976. I have been a certified specialist since June of 1981. I have seen this system go through many changes. I have acted as an arbitrator, a Judge Pro Tempore and as a mediator. This line of work has put my children through school and has enabled me to provide for my family while doing work that I feel has helped clients and their families to endure very difficult times and secure a future for themselves and their families. I am proud of my career and it is my fervent wish that we all tend to and use our system in an ethical and positive manner. We should all practice in a manner so that we can look in the proverbial mirror and like what we see.
If we practice ethically and with heart, then we do good in the world. This is true of everyone in our field. An ethical defense attorney realizes that this is a benefit delivery system and strives to see that injured workers get the benefits to which they are entitled. When it works, our system can be a wonderful thing. When it does not work, we are all tainted by its inadequacies. Let us all, in our own way, strive to make our system work as it is intended to work. Our mutual motto should be: We can all do well by doing good! With this last thought I wish everyone a safe and healthy July! (And I am hereby wishing everyone a belated Happy Fourth of July!).