For the first time since converting to hearings by telephone or video conference at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020, the Industrial Commission of Ohio has expressed its intention to return to in-person workers’ compensation hearings commencing on July 6, 2021. The details remain to be finalized, but in a news release dated June 11, 2021, the Industrial Commission noted that the legislation authorizing workers’ compensation hearings be conducted remotely will expire on June 30, 2021, and cannot be renewed. Perhaps in anticipation of the need for new training and protocols, the Industrial Commission has determined that no hearings will be held on July 1st or July 2nd, and with July 5th being a state holiday, the commencement of in-person hearings is set to proceed on Tuesday, July 6th. What we learned from remote hearings and how can employers apply those lessons going forward?
Employers experienced new challenges on March 18, 2020 when Ohio began conducting hearings by telephone. The biggest disadvantage of the telephonic hearings was the instability of the bridge line. Many times throughout hearings there would be “drops” in the bridge line that would cause gaps in the middle of arguments. At first, hearing officers would stop the parties, but many became resigned to 5-to 10-second gaps in presentations. Cross-examination was difficult, and the use of video or documentary evidence at hearings was simply impossible.
The telephonic hearings continued for more than a year until the switch was made to hearings via WebEx on April 19, 2021. The WebEx hearings did away with the unstable bridge line and resulting gaps. However, despite video capabilities on WebEx, most parties still participated by telephone, and hearing officers were only permitted to use the audio capabilities and did not appear on camera. Video could be uploaded prior to the hearing, but actually showing the video or calling up exhibits was impossible, requiring adjustments in how arguments were presented, and clarification of which documents or medical records you were referring to in the file.
The details of restarting in-person hearings are still somewhat murky at best. Another press release was issued on June 14, 2021 announcing that notices would permit parties and representatives to appear either in-person or via WebEx. There may still be additional changes as meetings to discuss logistics continue. The return to in-person hearings provides employers with tangible benefits; such as easier cross-examination of injured workers, and the ability to present video or documentary evidence at the hearing. The downside may be the continued retirement of several experienced hearing officers, uncertainty regarding scheduling, and the anticipated need for personal protective equipment requirements.
There will undoubtedly be adjustments as we begin to return to in-person hearings after so long without them. However, I believe these developments will ultimately benefit employers as well as the system itself. If you would like to submit a question to Shop talk, or would like to discuss this or any other workers’ compensation issues, please feel free to contact me or my associate Gary Baker.