The New York Times By N. R. KLEINFIELD - June 13, 2009
The chairman of New York State’s embattled workers’ compensation system said on Friday that he was resigning to become a judge in the Social Security system, less than two years after he was appointed to bring fundamental change to a system long assailed for its ineffectiveness. The chairman, Zachary S. Weiss, was named the head of the Workers’ Compensation Board by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in October 2007, not long after passage of a law to overhaul the system. According to both Mr. Weiss and the office of Gov. David A. Paterson, Mr. Weiss was not asked to leave. Mr. Weiss said that he had accepted a higher-paying and more-secure job as an administrative law judge, beginning July 20. “It might seem like a step down for me,” Mr. Weiss said in an interview. “But it’s a really good job. You have an opportunity to make a very consequential decision in peoples’ lives.” Nonetheless, his departure is seen as opening a leadership void at a time when momentum to make improvements in the compensation process is already being questioned.
The fractious $5.5 billion-a-year workers’ compensation system struggles to treat injured workers with appropriate speed and to protect employers against fraud. Mr. Weiss, 55, a lawyer, was seen as an engineer of change when he arrived from the State Insurance Department. Yet less has happened than many people expected. The new law quickly lowered costs and gave workers more money, and Mr. Weiss sped up appeals and contested cases. More than two years later, however, other goals remained unfulfilled, and widespread discontent persists. “I have very, very mixed feelings about leaving,” Mr. Weiss said. “I did as much as I could to make it better. I’m confident the structures I put in place will lead to continued progress.” During his tenure, Mr. Weiss was praised by many for his ambition to boldly revamp the system. “He was a hands-on chairman,” said Robert E. Beloten, a former compensation judge who became a commissioner a month ago. “The board is losing a very valued player in the system.” But others have faulted him for the sluggish pace at which change has unfolded. New medical guidelines governing assessments of disabilities, for instance, are long overdue, as are programs to hasten returning injured people to work. “Zach’s a very nice man; he’s a caring individual,” said Art Wilcox, New York State’s A.F.L.-C.I.O. workers’ compensation specialist. “Is the system better since he took over? I’m not hearing that. We really haven’t gotten much done.”
Two months ago, The New York Times published a three-part series that detailed the problems plaguing workers’ compensation. The examination found that cases dragged on needlessly for months or years, opinions from doctors were often slanted and employers frequently retaliated against workers who filed claims. While the system was conceived as a no-fault process, it has produced workplaces characterized by mistrust. Mr. Weiss said that his decision to leave began casually. Last fall, colleagues spotted a job posting for a judge in the Social Security Administration that entailed ruling on disability cases. They told Mr. Weiss he ought to consider it. Having always wanted to become a judge, he took the test, scored highly and was offered a job two weeks ago. After discussing the offer with his wife, he accepted it. It is a lifetime appointment apt to be much less grueling than his current position is. He will work out of an office in Jericho, on Long Island. His initial salary will be $131,000. Mr. Weiss now earns $120,800. Mr. Paterson’s office said that a search for a replacement was under way.