Big Changes Coming for Workers' Comp

The effects of a recession will change the workers' compensation market for years to come. Self-insurance programs offer a lifeline.


There is still much unknown about how deeply and pervasively the pandemic will affect the U.S. and global economies; however, a deep and long-lasting recession is now a foregone conclusion. The downstream effects of a recession will change the workers' compensation market dramatically for years to come.  

Employers should anticipate a hardening workers' compensation marketplace beginning soon.

Rate Increases:   

For the past decade, employers enjoyed the advantages of a soft market. Premium rates fell year over year; in 2019, the average workers' compensation rate was at the lowest point in the 46 years since 1973 [California Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau's 2019 State of the System report]. 

Businesses in all industries should expect workers' compensation rates to increase dramatically over the next few renewal cycles. Insurance carriers offering both guaranteed-cost and high-deductible policies maintained their market share in a competitive marketplace with enticingly low premiums. Carriers partially offset the cost of insurance with the burgeoning investment returns earned in the booming stock market. With stock market returns evaporated, carriers must now charge the actual full cost of the insurance plus overhead, operating costs and shareholder profits, which will result in dramatically higher premiums.

Reduced Availability of Coverage:

Over the past decade, carriers competed for the employer's business by offering a plethora of competitive options.  

Welcome to the new reality of a hard market. In previous hard markets, carriers exited the workers' compensation market altogether to focus on more profitable and predictable lines such as general liability, auto, directors and officers' coverage and the like. With limited competition, the few remaining carriers will become more choosy. Even employers with long-term, loyal relationships to a carrier may be bewildered to be refused a renewal offer. New coverage pricing may be so costly as to require the employer to re-think its entire business and pricing strategy. 

This marketplace reversal presents distinct challenges to employers unable to absorb the higher cost of workers' compensation insurance. Higher insurance rates will hammer companies that have long-term, fixed-price contracts or that operate in markets with cutthroat competitive pricing such as service-based businesses, construction and government contracting.

See also: COVID-19: Implications for Business Models  

A Safe Port in the Storm: Self-Insurance

However, all hope is not lost. A few alternatives to traditional workers' compensation insurance have always existed. In California, there is a reliable and robust self-insurance option for employers. A recently conducted actuarial study found that self-insured employers lowered their workers' compensation costs an average of 24% even when insurance rates are favorable. These savings are stable and likely would be even higher in the new hard market. Self-insurance is primarily available to medium-sized and large companies that meet specific financial criteria. Self-insured groups (SIGs) exist in many industries, making self-insurance accessible to smaller employers.

Self-insurance is a stable, predictable and lower-cost option to employers in boom times and recessions.

The employer pays only the direct cost to adjust the claims on an as-incurred basis. There is no carrier involved, so there is no risk of rate increases or lack of available coverage.

In any market, self-insurance offers employers four additional and significant benefits: greater control, increased savings, improved outcomes and peace-of-mind.

Greater Control: Self-insured employers can design their programs, so they exert greater control over how the program works. Employers can determine priorities based on the needs of their company and employees. Priorities may include such objectives as more robust claims processes, faster return-to-work cycles, white-glove treatment of their employees and telemedicine.

Increased Savings: Employers save money because they do not pay carrier overhead, marketing and shareholder profits, as demonstrated in head-to-head studies comparing traditional and high deductible policies with self-insurance. 

Better Outcomes: With the potential of greater control over the care and treatment of the employees and processes comes improved outcomes for injured workers. Employees of self-insured companies receive the care and treatment they need in a timely way, delivered by providers chosen by either themselves or their employers. Expedited medical treatment, caring claims administration and return-to-work programs can hasten healing and recovery of the injured workers. Greater control results in employees reclaiming their lives and returning to work sooner, equaling happier employees at a lower cost to the employer.

See also: COVID-19’s Impact on Workers’ Comp  

Peace of Mind: A stable and predictable workers' compensation solution, together with improved outcomes all at a lower cost, contributes to peace of mind for the employer.

Are you interested in looking into self-insurance for your company? First, check with your agent or broker. Some brokers may be knowledgeable and willing to assist you in becoming self-insured, working for a flat fee instead of a commission paid by the carrier. If your agent is not able to assist you, contact the California Self-Insurer's Security Fund or visit the website at 

Jon Wroten

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Jon Wroten

Jon Wroten, MBA, CPP is the managing director of California Risk Advisors and the former chief of the California Office of Self-Insurance Plans (OSIP), where he oversaw the nation's largest self-insurance marketplace.

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