Surety Bond Assistance Fuels Growth
Federal and state laws mandate that a certain portion of most public works projects be given to small, minority-owned or female-owned contractors. There is little argument that such rules have a great benefit, both in supporting bootstrap businesses, and also in bringing increased talent and competition to contract bidding.
Federal and local laws also mandate that contractors post surety bonds, often to the full value of the contract. The intention is to protect taxpayer dollars and public infrastructure against shoddy work. Often, the two mandates conflict with each other, because even healthy small firms have cash flow constrictions that make posting a bond prohibitive.
While legislative solutions are sought, the interim solution is bond assistance, or subsidy. A few local brokerages around the country, notably one on each coast, have specialized in this field. Most recently, the San Francisco regional Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) retained Merriwether & Williams, a pioneer in this niche market, to assist in a new round of contracts and bonding.
A completely separate firm, Surety Bond Associates of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., is active on the East Coast, and has been working with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. for more than a year on an emerging-business capital assistance program.
“We are making final adjustments to the program, and hope to launch it in the second quarter,” said Ellen Neylan, president of Surety Bond Associates.
The national brokerages are not active in the business because it involves a lot of time and effort for a relatively modest return. The big firms laud the efforts, and are content to leave the business to the dedicated regional brokers.
“The bonding requirement is a huge hurdle for small and minority businesses,” said James E. Bridgeman, department manager of insurance for BART. He said that while the heavy burden on bidders’ cash flow and capital is the biggest challenge for them, there are others. “There is a formal bonding statement, accounting standards, and other requirements,” he said. Government entities and large contractors have the personnel and expertise to handle those on their own, but small businesses do not.
Bridgeman added that in meeting the inclusion goals of the contractor distribution laws, BART and other authorities also gain community involvement in local and regional public works. “Merriwether & Williams have held roundtables where prime contractors and subcontractors can sit down, get to know each other and the projects.”
“In these programs, our default is 0.2 percent, which is one-hundredth of the surety industry average of 20 percent.”
– Ingrid Merriwether, president and CEO, Merriwether & Williams
Question of Default
One major concern, especially with a bond assistance or subsidy program, could be default. But he noted the default percentage for contractors in such programs is quite small. “There is a real engagement by the brokerage, a real passion for this underwriting and assistance. They try to make default very difficult. Beyond underwriting guidance, they provide third-party fund administration and other support as part of their process, even beyond our contractor supervision,” said Bridgeman.
The BART commission comes 17 years after the first effort in bond assistance by Merriwether & Williams, said President and CEO Ingrid Merriwether. “We were handling OCIP for the San Francisco Airport Authority [SFO] when they asked us to help them with a $3 billion capital expansion project. They were having trouble meeting their Miller Act obligations. That is the federal law requiring a portion of the work be done by small, female- and minority-owned contractors. California and most states have similar laws.”
She said that SFO realized it would have to approach the problem in a new way, because this was a systemic challenge. The authority was willing to provide bonding subsidies to help otherwise capable contractors to qualify, but the process was complex. “Bonding is often an artificial barrier,” said Merriwether. “What is commonly called a subsidy or assistance is actually an investment. There are direct and quantifiable cost savings from having more bidders on a job, especially smaller contactors with less overhead.”
There is a symmetry to the concept. The idea of the bond is that the contractor puts capital at risk but once the job is done, that capital is returned and the contract paid. Similarly, in the surety assistance, the authority provides a subsidy, and gets it back when the bond is returned. The net gain is the lower cost of the project.
“We never arrange for more than 40 percent assistance,” said Merriwether, “that means the contractor is still responsible for 60 percent. The surety is enduring.” For the Miller Act, the federal threshold is $100,000, so that covers just about any public work. “After the SFO project,” she said, “the mayor of San Francisco realized bonding was a major issue throughout the city and county, and within two years there was a citywide bond assistance program.”
The BART commission represents the eighth such project for M&W in the past 17 years. According to Merriwether, “in that time, we have enabled $699.3 million in transactions, of which $207 million have been successful bidders.” The more important ratio is the default rate. “In these programs, our default is 0.2 percent which is one-hundredth of the surety industry average of 20 percent. That is testimonial proof that bonding is an artificial barrier,” she said.
Another client of M&W is the City of Los Angeles, specifically several of its “proprietary” or autonomous departments. Curtis Kelley is senior risk manager for the city administrator’s office. “The mayor’s office received numerous calls regarding the difficulties that small contractors were having securing surety. I did some research and learned about the program that the City and County of San Francisco had established,” he said. “I called Ingrid and spoke at length with her as well as officials in San Francisco. We decided to establish a similar program here.”
LA started its program under the auspices of the sewer construction and maintenance authority, simply as a good fit with municipal process. Eventually the program grew to include transit and transportation, airports and ports, and central city government.
“For just the City of LA, we have assisted on $156 million in surety or contract value, of which $62 million in contracts were awarded. And we have never had a default.”
– Curtis Kelley, senior risk manager, Los Angeles city administrator’s office
“Merriwether & Williams have great contacts among prime and subcontractors,” said Kelley. “They go through their own underwriting process with the potential bidders on a contract. They determine which surety would be the best fit, then they go to the market with our guarantee. That is the smaller of either 40 percent of the value of the contract, or $250,000.”
Kelley stressed that the bonding underwriters still go through their own underwriting as they would if the contractors had come to them separately. The double underwriting seems to work: “For just the City of LA, we have assisted on $156 million in surety or contract value, of which $62 million in contracts were awarded. And we have never had a default. The savings came to $3 million. This approach has a real payback.”
Kelley expects the program to expand. “We have used the program for a new terminal at LAX, for wastewater projects, but the ports are probably going to be our biggest expansion in the program,” he said. “This is not just piddly little contracts; they have a huge impact for the city and for the people of LA.”
Merriwether also speaks in terms of “the double bottom line,” doing well by doing good. “We are a small, woman-owned firm, so this is our cohort. We can relate,” she said. “This is important work, and as far as I know we are the only firm in the State of California engaged in it. In the past few requests-for-proposal, we were told that we were the only firm to respond.”
Government officials agreed. “The biggest challenge in our latest program was not getting approvals, it was the lack of competition for the contract,” said BART’s Bridgeman. “We have worked with Merriwether & Williams before as operations broker and also as a team member on construction projects.”
Bridgeman added that the hope of the brokers and of the city is that some of the repeat contractors taking advantage of the bond assistance will be able to build a track record and grow to the point where they no longer need the program.
M&W has several offices around California, and there is plenty of business. Said Merriwether, “We have a big back yard.” She is hopeful about legislative solutions, and M&W has other lines of work, but she expects to be at this for many more years.
“There are constantly efforts around the country to change bonding requirements because this is a real problem for governments at all levels,” said Merriwether. “The availability, or lack, of surety credit has a very big impact on public works everywhere. Surety bonds don’t exist in an abstract public-policy realm. They affect city and county budgets, local and regional economic development and infrastructure.”
Making the Grade
Taking the time to match a tough job with a worker who can actually do it reduces the potential for costly workplace injuries, employers are now finding.
That concept is leading more employers to study their essential job functions and test the ability of job candidates, particularly when a job requires a new hire to perform functions known to cause injuries.
Increased nationwide hiring, the rising cost of treating workplace injuries and a less physically fit job applicant pool are driving more employers to employ the practice known as post-offer employment testing.
Post-offer employment testing, or POET, involves simulating the lifting, pushing, pulling and other physical activities that make up a job’s essential functions. Employers are increasingly making employment offers conditional upon a job applicant’s physical ability to perform those activities.
And in another recent trend, employers are expanding the strategy to help determine when to return an established employee to their duties following a workplace injury or a non-occupational disability leave.
“Pre-work screens are not a good strategy if your injuries are coming three years into employment.”
–Drew Bossen, founder, Atlas Ergonomics
At Cooper Standard, the Novi, Mich.-based automobile parts manufacturer, for example, workers desiring a strenuous job first participate in “simulated work.” That helps determine whether they are physically capable of performing the real job, said Patricia Hostine, the company’s global manager of workers’ compensation.
A job requiring continual force to press rubber hose into a mold that forms radiator hoses is desirable because it is one of the better paying tasks the auto parts manufacturer offers, Hostine added.
But it’s also one of the company’s most physically demanding roles.
“It’s very hard work,” Hostine said. “That is where a lot of our injuries are found.”
After performing the simulated work, more applicants decide against taking the job than the company disqualifies. That’s because the testing showed them they couldn’t do the job anyway.
Cooper Standard also requires a functional evaluation, conducted by physical therapists, for any worker who has been away from work either because of a workplace injury or a non-occupational disability.
That requires employees who normally form radiator hoses to show that they are once again physically capable of performing the work after returning from an absence.
Employers that have benefited from conducting POET evaluations for newly hired employees are increasingly adopting a similar worker evaluation as part of their return-to-work programs, several experts said.
“Historically, these [physical evaluations] have been used at the point of offer, at the point of employment,” said Drew Bossen, a physical therapist and founder of Atlas Ergonomics. “But in the last 12 months, we have clients formulating methodologies to use them for return to work as well.”
Data from an initial POET exam can also provide a measured baseline of an employee’s abilities that can be reviewed post injury to help determine when the worker has regained their ability to return to their original job, or whether they should take up other duties.
Using data that way can reduce return-to-work durations by providing support for a doctor’s determination to release their patient.
Most employers using a POET system, however, still use it only to test newly hired workers.
Evaluating whether potential new hires have the physical ability to perform certain tasks can substantially reduce a company’s injury rate because newer workers typically account for a greater number of injuries than their more-experienced counterparts, POET advocates said.
Data compiled by the National Council on Compensation Insurance Inc. showed that workers on the job less than a year in 2007 accounted for nearly 34 percent of injuries although they made up only 23 percent of the labor force.
“Pre-work screens are not a good strategy if your injuries are coming three years into employment,” Bossen said.
Now, as the U.S. Labor Department reports increased hiring across the country, vendors that provide physical ability testing programs said they are seeing increased demand, which had dropped off during the recession.
“We have seen a big uptick in companies interested in doing this across all industries,” including transportation, mining and health care, said Connie Vaughn-Miller, vice president of business development for BTE Technologies.
The testing may be more beneficial for the most strenuous types of work.
Hostine at Cooper Standard said, for example, that she does not see a cost/benefit advantage for testing workers engaged in light production jobs.
Most employers adopting a POET strategy do so for certain positions and many start with a pilot program, experts said. It’s best to decide which job categories to include in a pilot program by reviewing the company’s claims history to pinpoint where injury frequency and severity are problems. Or, they recommend starting with the company’s most physically demanding jobs, then add others if the pilot results warrant doing so.
“We can’t be a better place to work if we’re hiring people that are not able to perform the job. That’s bad for the company and the associate.”
–Libby Christman, vice president of risk management, Ahold USA.
Making Work Safer
“One of our company promises is to be a better place to work,” said Libby Christman, vice president of risk management at Ahold USA.
“We can’t be a better place to work if we’re hiring people that are not able to perform the job. That’s bad for the company and the associate.”
Ahold is a retailer with about 120,000 employees operating stores under the names of Stop & Shop, Giant Food Stores, Martin’s Food Markets, and Peapod, an online grocery ordering unit.
Late last year, Ahold launched a pilot program for Peapod delivery drivers and for certain strenuous jobs in two warehouses, Christman said. The warehouse jobs require pushing, pulling, bending and lifting.
Since September, Christman has found that about 25 percent of job applicants could not pass its physical demands test. Screening for an employee capable of doing the job, though, not only reduces injuries, but improves productivity.
“We know that obtaining an accurate assessment of an applicant’s physical abilities can help us place him or her in a suitable job, potentially eliminate injuries and ensure efficiency and performance on the job,” Christman said.
Stepped-up hiring is not the only factor driving employer demand for POET services, observers said.
Employers — continually pushing for more sophisticated safety measures in the face of an aging, more obese, and less physically fit U.S. workforce — are also driving the demand, BTE Technologies’ Vaughn-Miller said.
The Discrimination Question
Employers cannot discriminate when hiring, but they can legally ask a worker to demonstrate that they can meet the physical demands of a job’s essential functions, experts said.
That requires careful analysis, however, to clearly understand a job’s essential functions, so the designed test measures just those functions and does not go beyond evaluating a worker’s ability to perform those specific tasks.
Employers have run afoul of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when implementing POET programs that evaluated for abilities beyond those required by the job.
If employees must lift 75 pounds only once a year, and can use a mechanical lift assist to help them when they do so, then testing to see whether a worker can lift 75 pounds is not a fair test, advised Colleen M. Britz, managing director and ergonomics practice leader for Marsh Risk Consulting.
Employers may also face discrimination complaints if they do not require a POET evaluation of everyone seeking a specific job, experts warned.
The tests themselves, however, vary substantially, depending on the vendor or employer providing them.
Some resemble gym equipment with electronic systems for measuring a worker’s strength and agility. Those results can then be compared to computerized measurements of a task. Other tests may be as simple as requiring a worker to lift bags of sand.
“I do consider it a best practice to have a well-designed post-offer employment test that truly is measuring an employee’s capacity to meet physical demands,” Britz said. “It’s a matter, from my perspective, of whether some of the methodologies are truly testing that.”
The wide variation in testing methodology has hampered the collection of data on POET’s impact on overall employee injury rates across industries or multiple employers, experts said.
But individual employers have experienced success, Britz said.
“I don’t know of any company that has stopped doing POET after starting — because they are seeing a positive return on investment,” she added.
A physical abilities test helped Prince William County in Virginia mitigate a double loss driven by candidates seeking to become firefighters.
The county was losing tens of thousands of dollars on hiring and training costs each time a job candidate washed out of a 26-week training course simply because they could not perform the physical challenges firefighters face in the line of duty, said Tim Keen, assistant chief for the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue.
Because firefighting is a tough job, a lack of physical capability also contributed to recruit training injuries.
“Not only is it a hard job, but when you add all the gear they wear, their air packs, as well as the functional movements that it takes to accomplish certain tasks, it puts strains on the body,” Keen said.
Those strains became costly workers’ compensation claims when recruits could not return to an existing job as would occur after an established firefighter suffered an injury, added Lori Gray, the county’s risk management division chief. That forced the county to continue paying workers’ compensation benefits to recruits who did not have a job to return to.
So in 2003, the risk management and fire department helped the county establish its own facility where applicants wanting to become firefighters must first participate in a standardized Candidate Physical Ability Test.
The International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs developed the CPAT test the county licenses.
The test used by fire departments across the country requires candidates to climb stairs while wearing weight vests, drag hoses and simulated bodies, simulate forcing their way into a building, and conduct other physical feats within a certain time period.
“There are a variety of firefighting tasks they must go through in this course,” Keen said. The course tests their aerobic capabilities, their flexibility, core strength, and upper and lower body fitness.
The test’s standardization ensures it is true to the firefighter’s actual work role and that is legal and fair to all candidates, he added.
“Regardless of age or gender the course is the same for everybody,” he said.
“The test is appropriate so you are not losing people due to injuries, especially early in their careers, Keen said. “It’s the right thing to do, making sure they are physically capable of doing the job.”
The screenings have resulted in fewer recruits lost due to a lack of physical ability.
“We have also seen a huge reduction in the number of injuries that were occurring because recruits are coming in more physically fit to do the job,” Keen said.
POET advocates said the screening results have other applications as well.
In some cases, post-offer physical test results provide employers with a defense in permanent disability cases, Britz said.
In states allowing employers to apportion responsibility for permanent disability claims, for example, the baseline results from the initial post-offer exam can limit an employer’s liability by showing that a worker lost only a certain portion of their functional ability during their employment tenure.
Britz added that she expects to see more large, sophisticated employers counter rising claims severity driven by factors such as aging and obesity by integrating their ergonomics, wellness intervention and physical ability testing programs.
For example, an employee returning from a leave might undergo a fitness for duty exam to evaluate their ability to perform the job without injuring themselves.
Simultaneously, the employee could be referred to the employer’s wellness program to address health-related issues such as high body mass index or to learn exercises that would strengthen certain body parts, such as their shoulders, if frequently used in their daily work routines.
“That is the evolution of post-offer employment testing into fitness-for-duty programs,” she said.
“Not so they lose the job, but to recognize that this person needs to work on shoulder strength. So we create an opportunity to increase shoulder strength. I think that is going to be the wave of the future.”
Achieving More Fluid Case Management
Risk management practitioners point to a number of factors that influence the outcome of workers’ compensation claims. But readily identifiable factors shouldn’t necessarily be managed in a box.
To identify and discuss the changing issues influencing workers’ compensation claim outcomes, Risk & Insurance®, in partnership with Duluth, Ga.-based Healthcare Solutions, convened an April roundtable discussion in Philadelphia.
The discussion, moderated by Dan Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance®, featured participation from four tenured claims management professionals.
This roundtable was ruled by a pragmatic tone, characterized by declarations on solutions that are finding traction on many current workers’ compensation challenges.
The advantages of face-to-face case management visits with injured workers got some of the strongest support at the roundtable.
“What you can assess from somebody’s home environment, their motivation, their attitude, their desire to get well or not get well is easy to do when you are looking at somebody and sitting in their home,” participant Barb Ritz said, a workers’ compensation manager in the office of risk services at the Temple University Health System in Philadelphia.
Telephonic case management gradually replaced face-to-face visits in many organizations, but participants said the pendulum has swung back and face-to-face visits are again more widely valued.
In person visits are beneficial not only in assessing the claimant’s condition and attitude, but also in providing an objective ear to annotate the dialogue between doctors and patients.
“Oftentimes, injured workers who go to physician appointments only retain about 20 percent of what the doctor is telling them,” said Jean Chambers, a Lakeland, Fla.-based vice president of clinical services for Bunch CareSolutions. “When you have a nurse accompanying the claimant, the nurse can help educate the injured worker following the appointment and also provide an objective update to the employer on the injured worker’s condition related to the claim.”
“The relationship that the nurse develops with the claimant is very important,” added Christine Curtis, a manager of medical services in the workers’ compensation division of New Cumberland, Pa.-based School Claims Services.
“It’s also great for fraud detection. During a visit the nurse can see symptoms that don’t necessarily match actions, and oftentimes claimants will tell nurses things they shouldn’t if they want their claim to be accepted,” Curtis said.
For these reasons and others, Curtis said that she uses onsite nursing.
Roundtable participant Susan LaBar, a Yardley, Pa.-based risk manager for transportation company Coach USA, said when she first started her job there, she insisted that nurses be placed on all lost-time cases. But that didn’t happen until she convinced management that it would work.
“We did it and the indemnity dollars went down and it more than paid for the nurses,” she said. “That became our model. You have to prove that it works and that takes time, but it does come out at the end of the day,” she said.
The ultimate outcome
Reducing costs is reason enough for implementing nurse case management, but many say safe return-to-work is the ultimate measure of a good outcome. An aging, heavier worker population plagued by diabetes, hypertension, and orthopedic problems and, in many cases, painkiller abuse is changing the very definition of safe return-to-work.
Roundtable members were unanimous in their belief that offering even the most undemanding forms of modified duty is preferable to having workers at home for extended periods of time.
“Return-to-work is the only way to control the workers’ comp cost. It’s the only way,” said Coach USA’s Susan LaBar.
Unhealthy households, family cultures in which workers’ compensation fraud can be a way of life and physical and mental atrophy are just some of the pitfalls that modified duty and return-to-work in general can help stave off.
“I take employees back in any capacity. So long as they can stand or sit or do something,” Ritz said. “The longer you’re sitting at home, the longer you’re disconnected. The next thing you know you’re isolated and angry with your employer.”
“Return-to-work is the only way to control the workers’ comp cost. It’s the only way,” said Coach USA’s Susan LaBar.
Whose story is it?
Managing return-to-work and nurse supervision of workers’ compensation cases also play important roles in controlling communication around the case. Return-to-work and modified duty can more quickly break that negative communication chain, roundtable participants said.
There was some disagreement among participants in the area of fraud. Some felt that workers’ compensation fraud is not as prevalent as commonly believed.
On the other hand, Coach USA’s Susan LaBar said that many cases start out with a legitimate injury but become fraudulent through extension.
“I’m talking about a process where claimants drag out the claim, treatment continues and they never come back to work,” she said.
Social media, as in all aspects of insurance fraud, is also playing an important role. Roundtable participants said Facebook is the first place they visit when they get a claim. Unbridled posts of personal information have become a rich library for case managers looking for indications of fraud.
“What you can assess from somebody’s home environment, their motivation, their attitude, their desire to get well or not get well is easy to do when you are looking at somebody and sitting in their home,” said participant Barb Ritz.
As daunting as co-morbidities have become, roundtable participants said that data has become a useful tool. Information about tobacco use, weight, diabetes and other complicating factors is now being used by physicians and managed care vendors to educate patients and better manage treatment.
“Education is important after an injury occurs,” said Rich Leonardo, chief sales officer for Healthcare Solutions, who also sat in on the roundtable. “The nurse is not always delivering news the patient wants to hear, so providing education on how the process is going to work is helpful.”
“We’re trying to get people to ‘Know your number’, such as to know what your blood pressure and glucose levels are,” said SCS’s Christine Curtis. “If you have somebody who’s diabetic, hypertensive and overweight, that nurse can talk directly to the injured worker and say, ‘Look, I know this is a sensitive issue, but we want you to get better and we’ll work with you because improving your overall health is important to helping you recover.”
The costs of co-morbidities are pushing case managers to be more frank in patient dialogue. Information about smoking cessation programs and weight loss approaches is now more freely offered.
Managing constant change
Anyone responsible for workers’ compensation knows that medical costs have been rising for years. But medical cost is not the only factor in the case management equation that is in motion.
The pendulum swing between technology and the human touch in treating injured workers is ever in flux. Even within a single program, the decision on when it is best to apply nurse case management varies.
“It used to be that every claim went to a nurse and now the industry is more selective,” said Bunch CareSolutions’ Jean Chambers. “However, you have to be careful because sometimes it’s the ones that seem to be a simple injury that can end up being a million dollar claim.”
“Predictive analytics can be used to help organizations flag claims for case management, but the human element will never be replaced,” Leonardo concluded.