Last month, Tom Lynch posted a concise and rather devastating macro view of workers comp costs in New York. Today we revisit an issue that illustrates the difficulty of lowering costs in the Empire State: the use of stenographers in each of the several hundred thousand hearings that take place every year in New York. With some reluctance, we will set aside the question as to whether the 300,000 hearings and the 30 million scanned documents are actually necessary in overseeing comp in New York. (They are not, but that is fodder for another day.)
As we read in Work Comp Central (subscription required), New York employs over 100 stenographers, along with their supervisors, to generate an "accurate record" of comp hearings. The staunch defenders of these stenographers - they are legion in the legislature - believe that the only way to secure an acceptably accurate account of a comp hearing is the use of a live stenographer. Electronic devices will miss the nuances, will mess up the occasional non-English word, will make unintentional errors, and will be flummoxed by occasions where more than one person is talking at the same time. In other words, without stenographic documentation, courtroom justice as we have come to know it in the Western world will cease to exist.
When the New York Workers Comp Board proposed a program to test digital recording of hearings, 67 comments were generated. Would it surprise you to learn that 66 of the comments objected to making any changes in the way hearings were documented?
As is often the case, the only reasonable context for examining the Byzantine construction that is New York comp is a comparison to other states. Do other states conduct hearings for any proposed change in each and every claim? Do other states scan every document moving through the comp system? Do other states require stenographic documentation of every comp hearing? Do other states prohibit the use of digital recording in the courtroom? Clearly, New York is out of step with the nation in these areas. Thus it should come as no surprise that the only aspect of comp where New York is a pace-setter is in the spiralling cost of comp to its employers.
One Small Step for Man...
In response to the NYWCB's plan to introduce digital recording into some of its hearings, the legislature passed Assembly 7508, which made explicit and absolute the requirement to use live stenographers. The Insider is pleased to report that Governor Cuomo vetoed the bill. This green - or should we say yellow? - light to proceed with a testing of digital recording will begin to align New York with other states in its approach to courtroom transcripts.
It's Not About the Jobs
In the context of a faltering economy, it is important to note that court stenographers are unlikely to face any layoffs. They are union employees, covered by a five year contract negotiated last year. The pilot use of digital recording is not aimed directly at them. So how does the new program, made possible by the Governor's veto, save money? By gradually shifting away from live stenographers to the use of cheaper - and comparably accurate - technology. As the current incumbent stenographers retire - or move on to new careers - the vacancies will not be filled. In all likelihood, these $60K per year jobs will eventually disappear.
With all the humongous cost-drivers in New York workers comp, the stenographers are a very small part of the problem. Nonetheless, there is significant symbolic value in taking on this miniscule stake holder. The long-standing problems in New York stem from a system that has made very little movement away from the bitter labor environment of the early 20th century. A profound lack of trust permeates the system.
The Governor, the legislature and the comp board need to evaluate each and every proposed comp initiative from a simple and fundamental test, based upon the essence of comp: does the proposed action improve benefits and conditions for injured workers? And does it lower costs for employers? Other considerations - politics-as-usual, stake holder leveraging and sheer bureaucratic inertia - should no longer be part of the discussion.