This month’s featured executive is Julie Cherry, Secretary-Treasurer of the Louisiana AFL-CIO and WCAC labor representative, among many other roles. Read on for her take on workers’ comp, the moral imperative in a balanced system, and how we can encourage young women to pursue their interests – no matter where they lie.
Comp Blog: Tell us about your personal background? Are you originally from Louisiana?
Cherry: I am originally from Baton Rouge and I’m a graduate of schools here. I went to Catholic school here and then to LSU after that. I started college with the intent of earning a degree in chemical engineering and, four kids and eleven years later, I wound up earning a degree in vocal music education with a minor in mathematics. So I’ve been around the block with what I wanted to do!
Comp Blog: How about your family, what perspective are you coming from there?
Cherry: I’m from a family of five, my best friend is from a family of six. At the time that I was growing up you still had a lot of traditional Catholic families like that. But among my contemporaries, that’s not the case. I have four children, and that’s fairly unusual today.
I also have two grandchildren: one who was just born a week ago and the other is 21 months old. Everything they say about being a grandparent is true – it’s the best thing ever!
Comp Blog: So did you teach in the school system in Baton Rouge?
Cherry: Yes, I taught in Catholic schools for about five years and then I taught in the public schools here for about eleven years. When I came to the public school system, I got involved in the teachers’ union and a previous leader kind of recognized some leadership qualities in me. He mentored me into union leadership, and because of that mentorship, I got the opportunity to serve on a committee with all of the stakeholders in the school system that revised the human resources policies of the district. Those policies are incredibly important to the men and women who work in the school system.
I also trained to become a mentor teacher to help new teachers just beginning their teaching careers, coaching them through the initial evaluation process – and then I trained to train the trainers! I was very interested in the quality of the profession, as well as protecting the due process rights of teachers who somehow wind up on the wrong side of things. I was also very involved in professional development and I took every opportunity for extra training that the state and the district would provide.
Comp Blog: How did the transition happen from teaching and being involved in the union to your leadership at the AFL-CIO of Louisiana?
Cherry: In 2001, I got elected President of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers and I spent two years doing that full time – 2002-2004 – and then I lost my re-election bid and went back to the classroom. Later on, an opportunity came along for me to come on staff here at the Louisiana AFL-CIO, so I started here in August of 2004. That was really my first experience with the workers’ compensation arena.
Comp Blog: How did your involvement with comp evolve as you moved through the ranks of the AFL-CIO?
Cherry: I was a staff member when I arrived in 2004, and subsequently, was elected Secretary-Treasurer in 2006. I’ve since been re-elected twice. Sibal Holt was then Secretary-Treasurer at the time, and she brought me to some WCAC meetings to familiarize me with the statutes, the process, and the other stakeholders. I became a member of the Council when she retired as President of the Louisiana AFL-CIO in 2006. Subsequently, WCRI formed an Advisory Committee in Louisiana and invited to participate as a member of that committee as well.
Comp Blog: What are your duties as Secretary-Treasurer and how does workers’ comp play a role in that?
Cherry: What we do here at the AFL-CIO is really acting as an umbrella organization for a varied range of professions: carpenters, teachers, police officers, pipefitters, etc. So we operate mainly on the legislative and political levels, representing the interests of our membership, which is comprised basically of working families in this state.
[The AFL-CIO] is statutorily named to a number of boards and commissions where we get to represent the interests of workers, and that’s how I got to be on the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council [WCAC].
My predecessor Sibal Holt was the one who really groomed me to be the person who does workers’ comp in this office, whereas the President focuses more on unemployment issues. That’s really an internal choice.
Comp Blog: Do you think your background as a teacher helps you in your legislative and political advocacy work with the AFL-CIO?
Cherry: I think it does. I read the legislation in full and study it, so even though I don’t know the ins and outs of the statute the same way as an attorney practicing workers’ comp does, I act as an informed human interest representative, the person that tracking those moral underpinnings of workers’ comp. I believe (and I hope) that my background as a teacher helps me to make my point, whether testifying before a legislative committee, lobbying a legislator, or serving on a committee.
Comp Blog: Does your Catholic background weigh on this moral interest at the AFL-CIO?
Cherry: I just returned from a conference in Washington D.C. that was co-sponsored by [The Catholic University of America] and the AFL-CIO on solidarity in faith, the intersections of that. One is a way of living out your faith. The Church has an explicit statement in favor of organized labor.
Comp Blog: Can you comment further on that moral imperative and how that plays into some of the adversarial potential within the WCAC?
Cherry: The moral imperative demands that we make the worker as whole as possible, as soon as possible, and that the primary responsibility for that lies with the employer who benefits from the work of the injured worker. That moral imperative truly tracks the interest of society at large, as returning the worker to gainful employment is better for families, communities, and the economy than cost-shifting the burden of injury, disability, or even death onto that society.
However, the Council is comprised of all of the stakeholders – injured workers, worker’s compensation insurers and self-insured groups and funds, employers, medical providers, plaintiff attorneys, defense attorneys, and the state. Those stakeholders have different constituencies to represent, with often competing interests, and conflicts often arise.
It’s sort of like the forest for the trees – I’m a big picture, forest kind of person. All of the various stakeholders on the Council represent their members and constituencies, but we all recognize the need for a healthy system overall. Over the last few years, we’ve had really an excellent Council, unlike maybe in previous years. When I first started, there were a lot of times when we couldn’t even talk to each other in the same room. I’d say that’s been a big improvement.
The Council is about balancing all of the interests and making sure that the worker can be made whole as soon as possible and in a cost efficient and sensible manner. It goes like this: you need to know what someone else’s issues are [with the system] in order to reach a solution – if I’m deaf to that all the time, I’m not going to be much of a contributor. That, and with the cost-cutting reflex on the employer/insurer side, there needs to be an awareness that data can be selectively chosen to make it show what you want it to show. Another mentor of mine used to say: figures don’t lie but liars can figure.
Comp Blog: Can you comment further on data bias with respect to Louisiana’s reputation as being a high cost state for comp compared to our neighbors?
Cherry: Yes: so if you look at Louisiana we have higher costs than some other states, but you also have to look at our outcomes – what are we getting for what we’re paying for? And further, when you look at the individual breakdown of the “costs” in the system, you’ll see that our defense costs are among the highest in most national studies. You’ve got to ask: how many of the cases never should have been contested?
And as for the numbers themselves, we don’t know what kind of statistical manipulations are being used in order to compare data sets from different state in order to reach these conclusions and the interpretations therefrom.
Comp Blog: With this push and pull in mind: what are your major issues with the Louisiana workers’ comp system right now?
Cherry: This legislative session was really quiet, and I’m grateful for that. We made major reforms a couple of years ago and I think we’re still seeing all of that play out. Now traditionally, labor has been against Medical Treatment Guidelines. We think that the doctors should not be constrained and that [guidelines] can act as a bottleneck and slow down the delivery of the most effective medical treatment. But when we saw [during the past reforms] that they were coming no matter what, we decided that it would be better to have a seat at the table than to be looking in the window. We wanted Louisiana doctors to shape those guidelines, and made sure that the legislation provided for that.
Since the passage, some provider practices and attorneys are still very much against the Medical Treatment Guidelines, but others are operating quite well under those guidelines. With any major policy change, there will inevitably be a significant learning curve. There have also been some kinks and hiccups along the way – the devil is always in the details! There has been continuing refinement and tweaking from the OWCA, and, I hope, things are getting better. However, I do think there are some things with [the Guidelines] that make it harder for unrepresented workers to deal with contested medical treatment.
I understand that we live in a political environment where people are increasingly resistant to regulation, where the fastest growing party is no party, but, when a worker is injured and has lost their livelihood, there is a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do.
Comp Blog: That said, is workers’ comp primarily a moral issue in your mind?
Cherry: There are definitely some moral imperatives and I think that some good things in terms of safety rules have fortunately arisen from some very tragic events. But I would also say that there’s an economic benefit to be had in taking care of that person properly – we all benefit when we can get someone back into the workforce, and when we can’t, to give them the support they need in order to return to some level of normalcy.
Comp Blog: So what do you think of opt-out?
Cherry: Honestly, I just don’t understand how that flies legally. West, Texas [the 2013 accident at a fertilizer plant that killed 15 people and wounded 226] is a perfect example. Not only was there no comp, but the employer’s liability insurance was insufficient. That’s just wrong.
Contrast that with the BP example here – which was also terrible and which should not have happened – but BP’s at least paying. Those people in Texas are never going to recover, and that town will need at least a generation in order to normalize.
Comp Blog: What are your thoughts about Louisiana’s system overall?
Cherry: On whole, I think we still have some important protections that have been long-lost to other state: choice of physician, Second Injury Fund, etc. Our benefit structure is probably insufficient but I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
With employers, I think that most employers who purchase comp want to see their employees are well taken care of. So if the insurance company doesn’t do the right thing, I’d like to see employers keeping tabs on how claims are handled. They’re paying for the insurance and so they should be getting what they paid for.
As for the self-insured employer and self-insured group funds: some of them are very well-handled and others are not, much like traditional insurers. But we do have less ability to regulate those and so I think it’d be warranted to increase the scrutiny there.
Comp Blog: What does a typical day look like for you?
Cherry: During the Legislature there’s a very typical day, but of course that’s only a couple of months during the year. On those days, we meet in the office here at 8 AM and we meet with our group of representatives from the various labor groups. At the beginning of the session we assign the bills to the stakeholders and then we confer based on that person’s research and take positions. From there it’s all committee meetings, tracking the progress of the bill’s we’re concerned with, and observing or lobbying.
Otherwise, I’m involved on a number of boards and commissions as a labor representative so I’m often attending meetings; it really varies. As the Secretary-Treasurer here, I’m the non-profit equivalent of the Chief Financial Officer, which is an elected post.
Comp Blog: Do you have any personal hobbies that you enjoy in your spare time?
Cherry: I sing and I play the piano professionally as a church musician, three services every weekend, plus weddings and funerals. I was involved in music ministry as a teenager and had my first paying gig at 16 years old. I also sit on a number of boards as myself for personal outreach, rather than as a statutory labor representative. I love to read and to cook, and of course, spending time with all of my family, especially my children and grandchildren.
Comp Blog: Throughout your career as it has progressed, do you feel that you’ve had to personally confront any gender disparities in your leadership roles?
Cherry: I don’t think I’ve personally suffered much in terms of gender discrimination, certainly less than a lot of women. Starting in teaching, which is a female-dominated profession still, and because I taught in public schools with a published pay scale, the wage inequity which you often see did not personally affect me but I think it definitely exists and there are some misunderstandings about that, especially with the battle that’s been happening in this state.
For women in civil service, women in the military and women in unions – pay disparity isn’t a problem. For everyone else, I think it is – whether it’s overt or not. Even when you consider other factors like industry mix and the reduced on the job experience that might come with having children: you can’t explain away 66 cents on the dollar [in Louisiana], you just can’t.
Comp Blog: What advice can you give to women looking to succeed in executive positions?
Cherry: What I would tell young women today is simple: don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. And, if you’re interested in something, you don’t need to care whether or not someone thinks it’s appropriate. If you like science and math or building things, then you should do that. We still have certain gender expectations and we need to do a better job of nurturing our children in order to fix that larger social problem.
Editor’s Note: Julie Cherry participates in a wide variety of social and economic initiatives, both as a part of AFL-CIO and on a personal level. See a complete list of her advocacy efforts below.
La. Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council
Louisiana Advisory Committee for WCRI
Louisiana Workforce Investment Council (WIC)
– High School Subcommittee of the Craft Committee of the WIC
Louisiana Health Care Commission
Volunteer Louisiana (Immediate Past Chair)
Baton Rouge Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board (Chair)
Music Minister, St. Jean Vianney Parish
Adult Faith Formation Committee, St. Jean Vianney Parish
Louisiana Educational Television Authority (LETA) Board
Board of Directors, East Baton Rouge Council on Aging
Board of Directors, League of Women Voters – Baton Rouge
Board of Directors, League of Women Voters – Louisiana
Child Poverty Prevention Council
Louisiana Fair Pay Task Force
Adult Learning Committee
Mentor Teacher, EBRPSS
Mentor Trainer, EBRPSS
Recognized by WILG as the Kim Presbrey Champion of Labor, 2014