Either or both of two state agencies may be involved in your workers’ comp claim at some point. The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation [BWC] is the State Insurance Fund. It makes initial determinations on claims involving employers with their workers’ compensation coverage through the State (as opposed to self-insured employers who pay claims directly).
Many claims, particularly those involving only payment of an emergency room visit and no ongoing treatment, are favorably decided by the BWC and your contact with the system is essentially finished.
Hearings Before the Ohio Industrial Commission
Matters in dispute require a hearing before the Ohio Industrial Commission [IC]. These include issues ranging the allowance of your claim, diagnostic testing and treatment requests and payment (or non-payment) of compensation. The IC conducts nearly 100,000 hearings annually around Ohio.
IC hearings differ significantly from court dramas you’ve seen on TV. First, they are much shorter than a trial. Some hearings are scheduled for 6 minutes, some for 20-30, some for 90. The IC “judges” are known as Hearing Officers, attorneys hired and trained by the IC to decide disputed matters. Hearings are held in rooms about the size of a company breakroom and about as well decorated. The hearing officer sits at the head of a long table (somewhat elevated so they can see better over their computer screen). The employer and his/her representative typically sit on one side of the table, the injured worker and his/her legal counsel sit on the other side. Each IC district has its own “tradition” of who sits on which side. If you are represented, follow your attorney’s lead… if not, let the other side go in first, see where they sit and then go to the opposite side.
The BWC may have one of its staff attorneys attend the hearing. If so, s/he typically sits at the opposite end of the table from the hearing officer.
Each hearing officer has his/her own way of conducting hearings: generally, the hearing officer will permit the party requesting the hearing to speak first and present its case. Others require the injured worker to present his/her case all over again even if the hearing has been scheduled on the employer’s appeal. Some will ask lots of questions, some almost none. Some will look at you while you speak while others will be looking at your medical records online to follow along with your testimony. The point here is we all have our ways of doing things and hearing officers are no different.
Hearings are normally not as adversarial as TV shows depict since hearing officers like to maintain decorum in their hearing rooms and it generally benefits no one to be “snooty and snotty”. However, as in all areas of life, there are people who just can’t seem to help being a condescending jerk. Occasionally, an employer or representative may make unfounded accusations against you, essentially accusing you of lying, faking your injury or “gaming the system”. If you are represented, your attorney will almost invariably address this conduct. A hearing officer may also intervene, although his/her failure to do so shouldn't be interpreted as meaning s/he believes the accuser. Hearing officers base their decisions on the facts as they see them, not unfounded allegations. Still, such behavior is reprehensible and a reason my profession typically enjoys the favorability level of used car salesmen and members of congress. If you feel attacked, take a deep breath before responding firmly and with politeness. Hearing officers appreciate your efforts to keep hearings from degenerating into a shouting match.
Tips To Consider For Your Workers' Comp Hearing
Dress appropriately. Dress in clean clothes and don’t wear a ball cap to the hearing. You needn’t wear a suit but don’t come in looking like you’ve just been attacked by wolves.
Make eye contact. Look the hearing officer in the eyes when you answer questions and/or present your case.
Tell the truth. If you’ve had previous injuries, work-related or not, don’t hide them. They will likely be discovered in your medical records and then your credibility is shot. Prior injuries don’t negate the validity of your claim. Many clients have had several back injuries on the job—they can still have a new back injury if the old ones have healed or have been substantially aggravated.
Again, each hearing officer is different. Some are more apt to side with you, some more so with your employer. If you are unhappy with the outcome, you may typically appeal.
Keep your answers short. The hearing officer will ask if s/he needs more information. Remember the IC may have assigned only 20 minutes for the hearing and your portion is only half that. Hearing officers are being asked to decide only on the specific issue noticed for hearing—don’t tell them your life story, even if it is fascinating!
In hearings with my clients, I usually do most of the talking. This helps to summarize the issue for the hearing officer and presents our position in a concise manner. I will ask you questions so the hearing officer can assess your truthfulness. The other side might ask you questions.
Hearing officers usually want to review their notes, your testimony, and the medical records before deciding. They rarely decide at the conclusion of the hearing. Rather, they will write their written decision within a few days and all parties will receive a copy of the Record of Proceedings (i.e., “the order”) in the mail.
Talk to co-workers who’ve been to hearings before to get a better sense of things or, hey, call us to tell you more!!