As more counties across Pennsylvania reach the “Green” phase in the COVID-19 recovery process, attorneys involved in the PA workers’ compensation process were curious to know how this will impact the operations of the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. Yesterday, we were advised by the Bureau that, “(t)he designation of counties as ‘green’ does not automatically signal a return to in-person hearings.” Instead, live, in-person hearings will only be permitted in limited situations. This will be at the discretion of the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), where the WCJ feels it critical to have in-person testimony of a witness to properly assess credibility. In-person hearings will only be permitted in counties that are in the “Green” phase of COVID recovery.
Either party can request that testimony of a witness be taken in-person, but the WCJ will have complete latitude to grant or deny the request. Such a request should “include a justification and the position of the opposing party on the request.” The WCJ can also determine, on his or her own motion, that in-person testimony will be necessary.
Significant changes will be made to prior procedures in the workers’ compensation hearing offices. Only one Judge will hold hearings per day, and there will be a scheduled break between cases, so that an interim cleaning can be performed. As the Bureau notes, “Each individual who enters the office has a personal responsibility to follow the CDC and DOH guidelines for handwashing, social distancing, wearing masks, and staying home if sick.” All attendees to a hearing will be screened by security (to ask about wellness, in addition to the typical security screening). No persons will be permitted to enter a workers’ comp hearing location without a mask (sadly, the new normal).
While telephonic hearings are certainly more efficient for some situations, such as pre-trial or status hearings, we do look forward to allowing the WCJ to personally view the testimony of our clients. We believe it is critical to a case that a WCJ actually see the injured worker (and sometimes a fact witness) testify, so that credibility determinations can be made with the best foundation.