Monday, December 13, 2021

What is Different

Live from Orlando, Florida it is the Workers' Compensation Educational Conference (WCEC). Here, an unbelievably diverse and talented assortment of people bring workers' compensation to the fore each year and strive in their own way to make it better. There is scholarship, introspection, criticism, and reflection. It is a worthy effort to better understand the community of workers' compensation, how it is, and what it perhaps could be. 

There is a great deal of change in our world. Through the lens of age, pandemic, or both, I have come to notice change recently. I am confident that change is a constant in our world, perhaps the only constant. Therefore, it is not new and is to be expected. But, as I arrived in Orlando for the 75th Annual Workers' Compensation Conference, I found myself nonetheless noting changes. I have been attending this conference for thirty years, and it has become somewhat ingrained in what I do. 

Upon arrival, I found the Marriot World Center bustling and busy. There were lines to check in, though they moved rapidly. There were a multitude of familiar faces. Yes, faces. Smiling, happy, faces. Certainly, a few wore masks, but it was a minority. It was, in a word, temperate. The humidity was persistent, but that August temperature was missing. I enjoyed walking outside, a reception on the pool deck, and more. That was an intriguing change. In my years attending this program, it has never been in December. So, Change #1, weather. 

The first program adjustment to catch my attention was the missing Moot Court competition. The annual Zehmer Moot Court has been part of my experience here for three decades, and has been a highlight for me the last 20 years. One of the great benefits I perceive in the WCI is its impact on our community, and that is particularly notable in the impact on young people. Perhaps it is my perspective only, but I think the Moot Court is perhaps the longest-thriving student impact of this conference. 

But, alas, in 2021 the conference shifted to December, and there was a challenge with school's final examination schedules. The stalwarts that produce the competition (Hon. Jacquelyn Steele, Tracey Hyde, Esq., and Amie DeGuzman, Esq.) did not miss a beat. They shifted the preliminary rounds to the Internet, much in the way adjudications shifted during COVID. I understand that there was a lot of technical support from Florida State University School of Law, see Perseverance and Poise (November 2021). The contest finals will be held in Tallahassee on January 7, 2022, and will be live broadcast for all the competing teams to watch. The competition goes on, but I missed the Sunday excitement of live Moot Court oral arguments at the WCI, Change #2.

The WCI proposed earlier this year to provide a greater opportunity for Kids' Chance in 2021. WCI has been supportive of Kids' Chance of Florida (KCFL) program since its inception in 2015. Jim McConnaughhay serves on the Kids' Chance board of directors. Each year, WCI welcomes the KCFL team to make a scholarship presentation at the conference opening session. It is nice to see young people succeeding, enthusiastic about their studies, and focused on their futures. 2021 was no exception, and we were privileged to meet an outstanding scholarship recipient who is striving for a master's degree. She is an Ichthyologist, and her poise and enthusiasm for her future are heartwarming. 

But, in 2021, the long-standing conference golf tournament became the Kids' Chance of Florida Golf Tournament. For the first time in my history at the conference, I spent Sunday morning in casual clothes moving boxes and taking pictures. I did not contribute the effort that some did. In particular, I noted the amazing work of Kimberly Helwig (NCCI), Stacy Hosman (Hosman & Associates), Linda Vendette (Zenith) and Bob Wilson (WorkersCompensation.com). And, there were a great many others who likewise devoted time and effort to produce an enjoyable experience for 128 golfers. My minimal effort at amateur photography, however, was enjoyable. This effort replaced my Moot Court judging this year, a different way to engage youth, but as rewarding. Change #3, Golf Tournament attendance. 

For as long as I can remember, the event to attend at WCI is an outstanding reception on Sunday night. It is an honor to be invited, and was traditionally held close to the top floor of the tower in a nice suite. This shifted in 2021 to the pool deck. I do not know whether that was to gain the perceived health benefits of being outside or a recognition of the possibilities presented by December weather. I had the chance to speak with Charles Ehrhardt, Florida's evidence expert. How often do you speak to a living legend? In a word, the shift of this reception to the patio was outstanding, the atmosphere accommodating, and the company exceptional. Change #4, more outside activity. 

Finally, there were some somber moments. Another challenge that comes with age is the inevitability of death. This community lost some since we last gathered in Orlando in 2019. There were remembrances. I noted in Two Emails and Two Stories (September 2021), the passing of Wayne Myers. There have been other losses in the last two years. Steve Rissman noted the passing of Robert Barrett in the WCI opening session. It was an emotional moment in which Steve noted the loss experienced by the community that is workers' compensation. 

There will be more such moments Tuesday as difficult losses are remembered. Many will remember Sherrie Goldsmith from so many conferences past? Ms. Goldsmith passed earlier this year, and will be remembered fondly. She faced so many challenges, and yet remained devoted to helping those injured at work. She was persistently "that smiling lady," though more recently "the lady in the pink hat." She was a fixture, a cheerful contributor, and a great conversationalist. She remained so even confined to a wheelchair. Certainly, the passing of friends and colleagues is not a "change," but as we age the pace and frequency of such losses certainly seems to change. It is hard when contemporaries pass. Workers' compensation will not be the same without these folks, and so their loss is Change #5 for us all; our loss. 

Then there were things that did not change. The programming has still been outstanding. From the opening session, industry keynote, throughout Monday, the programming I attended was second to none. The speakers that are drawn to this event are truly leaders in their fields. They bring frank criticisms and compliments. There are many no-holds-barred conversations. It has been said that conversations around the nation begin at WCI, and time and again that seems to be borne out. The Out Front Ideas team, Kimberly George and Mark Walls, produced a great keynote program to kick-off the conference, a continuation of their efforts to bring analysis to what we do. 

Early Sunday, I ran into a hotel employee that has been a stalwart supporter of this program for as long as I can remember. When I departed this conference in 2019, he announced his retirement. I never expected to run into him again, yet here he was. It was an unexpected continuity. His focus remained upon making this program succeed. It was gratifying to see him again. He makes this conference better, and yet few probably even notice he is there. He and his team are in the background, arranging, correcting, and facilitating. How many of us take the time to notice the people that actually make the world turn? How often do you take a moment to say "thank you" to people that make things work? Thank you "big John," and the conference center team for all you do to make this a quality experience. 

The conversations have not changed. We are back face-to-face in animated exchanges about workers' compensation. Some would look askance at the suggestion that there is always something new in workers' compensation, but every year there is something novel to discuss. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this topic is that persistence of evolution and experience. One might say many things about their perceptions of workers' compensation, but I have never heard anyone complain that it is mundane or boring. 

So, in a nutshell, there are changes here in 2021 as to programming, weather, and some activities. But, they are overshadowed by the consistencies of people, challenges, and education. Though we are one day in, and there is much to come, it has been a great chance to see adjusters, risk managers, a variety of claimant and defense attorneys, physicians, judges, safety experts, and so much more. It is cathartic. I was enthused when we returned to live programming for the Forum, see We're Really Back (April 2021), and I am as enthused today. I am enjoying seeing the faces, hearing the voices, and being with you all once again. 

As usual, I have learned a great deal, and as it dawns this morning on the second day of programming I am eager to see what Tuesday brings. Multiple times already, I have heard cybersecurity mentioned, and I am eager to host the first WCI cybersecurity breakout Wednesday morning. It will be another novel topic starting here in Orlando, but I suspect it will be on many minds soon as the challenges demand our attention in days to come.