This month’s “Women in Comp” featured executive is Pauline Williams, Director of the Workers’ Compensation Second Injury Board and Manager of Finance and Audit for the Louisiana Office of Workers’ Compensation Administration. Williams gave us an inside look at her life and times, plus details on the inner workings of the Second Injury Fund in light of a requested appropriations increase currently at issue in the Legislature.
Comp Blog: Tell us about your background and life growing up.
Williams: I was born and raised in Westwego on the West Bank of New Orleans, graduated from Immaculata High and received by B.A. in Business Management from Southeastern.
I’ve been married for 25 years and have three sons.
I also have one sister who lives with her family on the West Bank where we’re from, my parents are still there as well.
Comp Blog: Was there anything in your childhood that you feel prepared you for the leadership role you hold today?
Williams: I was always leading. Whether it was the club at school, our Parish CYO, even with my girlfriends I do a lot of the organizing! I think it’s really just a personality trait.
Comp Blog: What drove the transition from New Orleans to Baton Rouge?
Williams: I’ve actually lived in the Baton Rouge area two separate times! In the mid-nineties I moved here for my husband’s job and eventually went to work for LWCC when they were opening the doors. By the late-nineties we had moved back to the West Bank and were there until Katrina.
Right after Katrina we lived in Lake Mary in Central Florida for about eighteen months. I was working for CCMSI prior to that and the office was badly damaged in the wake of the storm so, while we were working from our temporary offices in Baton Rouge, a management job opened up in Central Florida and so I moved down there. We really enjoyed Florida but it was never home so we were always thinking about coming back.
Comp Blog: Could you expand on your start in the workers’ comp world?
Williams: I started my career in insurance as an adjuster with F.A. Richard and mostly did other lines of property/casualty, but I did have some minimal exposure to workers’ comp there. But when I started with LWCC in 1993; that was my first genuine full-blown workers’ comp job.
Comp Blog: So that was right around when LWCC was founded. What role did you take on in those days?
Williams: I started out thinking that I didn’t really want to do adjusting anymore so I was in policyholder services. At that time, we were flooded with applications and so I was reviewing new applications and seeking out missing information.
I didn’t do that for very long because they needed help on the claims side and I had the experience so they asked me and within a few months I was supervising a medical-only unit on the claims side. And I haven’t really left claims since!
Comp Blog: Given your experience in this sector dating back to the early-nineties, what would you say has been the biggest shift in the workers’ comp industry in Louisiana over the course of your career so far?
Williams: We have a much higher degree of regulation now than in the early days. Just on the medical side, adjusters used to have a lot of leeway in terms of making decisions. If someone called and requested an MRI, you could approve it if it seemed reasonable. We had a lot less input from nurses as well, back then they were really only for the higher need cases. The implementation of MSAs now is another big difference. That is really within the last fifteen years that that has been an issue come settlement-time.
Comp Blog: The Legislative session is up and running, what do you think about the closed formulary bill (SB256) that is under consideration?
Williams: This is not my area of expertise but, from a big picture standpoint: we need to do something in Louisiana. We’re prescribing far more narcotics than most states. It’s not clear why injured workers in Louisiana would require more narcotics than those in other states, and I think it’s not just a workers’ comp issue. If that’s something that a formulary or something similar can address, it should be considered.
Comp Blog: So is pharmacy your top issue for Louisiana’s workers’ comp system right now?
Williams: It is an important issue and it’s not just a cost driver, it might be a public health issue. If we can come up with a solution, that would be a great big step to start turning the ship.
Comp Blog: Can you discuss some of the issues with the Second Injury Fund right now and issues with the reimbursements?
Williams: Well it’s really an appropriations issue for the Legislature. Because our assessment is based on benefit payments, we’ve been able to collect more revenue without an increase in the assessment rate. However, the Board is not able to issue reimbursements beyond the appropriated budget.
In HB1 right now, there’s a request for a $10 million increase in our appropriation from money that already exists in the fund. That is not to increase assessments at all or divert money from anywhere else in the budget, it is intended to free up money already dedicated to this purpose and help us get current with reimbursements and stay current. Right now, when we get a reimbursement request, we’re auditing really quickly, in less than two weeks usually. We just can’t pay all of them without the increase in appropriation from the Legislature.
Comp Blog: So you anticipate the appropriations increase in HB1 to remedy this?
Williams: It’ll probably take us two fiscal cycles to completely catch up, but if we don’t get the increase, it’s just going to push the payments out farther. So if we can get the reimbursements current, my goal is to have a 90-day turnaround at most.
Comp Blog: Speaking of solutions in this regard and your work with the Second Injury Fund, do you have thoughts about the workers’ comp system’s adversarial aspects?
Williams: You always have those claims that are going to be difficult. As a whole though, my approach has always been to treat people the way you would expect to be treated, and beyond that, to recognize the human element. When you’re an adjuster handling the claim, you’re meeting this person for the first time during a crisis point in their life. I try to approach it understanding that stress, but it is extremely difficult.
Adjusters and anyone else involved in the claims-handling process, working 50 or 60 hours a week, day in and day out – you can become immune to some of the things that people are facing. It’s hard to get everybody on the same page, everyone’s personalities and responses to crisis are different. Adjusting is an extremely demanding job: the medical aspect, legal issues, psychological elements, plus reserving properly. A day in the life of an adjuster…well, it’s a very busy day!
Comp Blog: What does a typical day look like from your position now?
Williams: For me there’s probably more of a typical month than a typical day, since I wear two hats here: I’m the Director of the Second Injury Fund but I’m also manage the audit and finance unit regulating self-insured employers and most of the financial tasks for the office here.
On the Second Injury Fund side, we’re mostly looking toward bringing decisions to the Board. I’m not in the day-to-day investigation of the claims but we have several meetings a month where we talk about claims and settlement requests. The outliers I address myself with the supervisor here.
Comp Blog: How many reimbursement requests do you get in a month?
Williams: We average about 350 reimbursements on approved claims each month. New claims that come in that we have to make a determination on, we average about one thousand a year, so a little over a hundred a month.
Comp Blog: So about on the personal side, do you have any hobbies that you pursue outside of work?
Williams: Well the youngest of my three boys is about to graduate high school so I’ll have a little bit more time soon! I love music, live music especially. I try to do the Live After Five events here. Live music, whatever is playing I’ll go and listen.
I also really love home improvement projects. That’s always been a good distraction for me when the boys were little. My husband isn’t much of a “honey-do” person, so anytime something needed painting or whatever, he would take them off and I would fix it up.
In fact, our first house was an old raised house that we were in the process of renovating and I took a vacation day so that I could paint the bathroom while he went off to work. I realized when I started painting that it was all paneling so I ripped out all the paneling and discovered tongue and groove behind the walls. It was such a cool find!
Comp Blog: Coming back to the angle of the series, what can you say about women in executive positions, either in workers’ comp in particular or in business generally?
Williams: It definitely makes a difference, but I don’t think it’s limited me that much. If anything, it’s forced me to approach things differently than I would have if I wasn’t in a male-dominated industry. In Louisiana it’s great because we have almost always had several women in top positions in the industry that were there and visible.
Comp Blog: Do you think the fact that there are women in those top positions provided a blueprint or a positive point of reference for you?
Williams: I think it helps to have women there to look to now. In my early days there were even fewer women in business generally. I probably only knew one or two women that held higher-level positions in business in Louisiana back then and they were somewhat typical of the stereotype, aggressive and assertive. I never really thought of myself in that way, but I think I learned from them and how they interacted in a group.
I was always a mom first, and there have been times where I needed to take a step back, but I think that hasn’t limited me. I believe that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, that’s just how I approach my life. Likewise in my work, I love to look at that big picture.
Comp Blog: What would be your advice to young women in business?
Williams: Strive for balance and have real goals. Twenty-five years ago, there was no way I could know that I would be here, but I did know that I was going to have an impact. As I get further in my career, that impact can get greater.
There’s a story that I like to tell because I think it illustrates this point about being a woman in this industry. Back in 1988 I took an adjusting class and I was the only female in the group. When we walked out of the class, the manager that I was going to work for showed me an office and said, “this is for you, you’ll be an inside adjuster.” And I responded like, “Well, I know how to climb a ladder just like he can!” So he asked if I wanted to work outside and I just made it known that I was capable of that, just like anyone else. I think that earned me some respect because I didn’t expect to be treated differently from the guys.