Risk Insider: Matthew Nielsen

California Dreamin’

By: | August 6, 2015 • 3 min read
Matthew Nielsen, a meteorologist and geographer with a great deal of experience in climate hazard models, is Senior Director, Global Governmental and Regulatory Affairs at RMS. He can be reached at [email protected]

It’s no secret that California has been suffering through a record-breaking drought that has plagued the state for over four years.  Reservoirs have been emptied, fields have been fallowed, and citizens are worried.

And while lawns across the state are turning brown in the blistering summer heat, good news has begun to appear for a potential savior to California’s water woes:  El Nino.

El Nino, identified by anomalous warming of the waters in the central Pacific Ocean, has been known to significantly affect the weather across North America.

El Nino is typically associated with quiet hurricane seasons in the Atlantic, warm winters in the eastern U.S., and stormier conditions in the West. It is often noted for causing substantial warming of the ocean off of California, Oregon, and Washington.

While improvements have been added to many vulnerable areas, such as the strengthening of levees around Sacramento, many of these flood defenses have yet to be put to the test.

So far this year, warm sea surface temperature anomalies have reached up to 5 degrees F in areas of California, leading to sightings of exotic sea life that typically live off the coast of Mexico and areas further south.

There’s no denying that some previous El Nino winters have brought torrential rainfall to the Golden State.

The 1997/1998 event brought twice the normal rainfall to many areas, along with devastating floods.  Rivers and lakes across the state were inundated by persistent rainfall, spilling water over floodwalls, rupturing levees, and soaking low lying areas.

While improvements have been added to many vulnerable areas, such as the strengthening of levees around Sacramento, many of these flood defenses have yet to be put to the test.

Flood insurance penetration remains low, and losses caused by a stormy winter are most likely to be carried by homeowners themselves.  Even though the National Flood Insurance Program is in place to provide up to $250,000 of dwelling coverage and $100,000 in contents coverage for single family residences, the average California home is worth over $400,000 (source:  Trulia).

This leaves a gap in the insurance to value ratio that many homeowners may not realize.

Making matters worse, this year’s wildfire season in California has also been active. Nearly 3,900 fires have been reported, burning almost 70,000 acres.  Two out of the three largest fires in California’s history have occurred during this major drought, leaving massive burn scars in their wake.

If this year’s El Nino event causes heavy rainfall, as in years past, these scorched areas could become highly susceptible to landslides.  The New Year’s Day Floods of 1997 caused a major mudslide in the burn scar along the American River, closing U.S. 50 through the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a month.  These floods also caused two levee failures in the Sacramento Valley, flooding what was then mostly farmland.

These welcome rains will hopefully put a dent in the drought across California, but they may also leave some homeowners ‘underwater.’  Years of extreme drought and devastating wildfires have left California vulnerable and unprepared for further disaster.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]