The man in charge of Ohio’s workers’ compensation agency is leaving public service for the first time in his 26 year career. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow sat down with Steve Buehrer to talk about his tenure and what he’s learned along the way.
If you could only use one word to describe Steve Buehrer it might have to be "journeyman." In his decades of public service, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation chief started as a fellow with the Legislative Service Commission then served in four different state departments. He was then elected as a state representative and later as a state senator for northwest Ohio.
Buehrer says that experience helped him figure out how he wanted to lead the BWC when Gov. John Kasich appointed him Administrator of the agency in 2011.
“I could see early on that we needed to do something different.”
During his five plus years with the BWC, Buehrer made about 300 trips around the state to reach out to employers and employees, which he says has helped build better relationships with the Bureau.
“The bureau -- in general -- had not done a good enough job at getting out and communicating to our customers and specifically the employer community," Buehrer said. "They often didn’t know where to go to get simple things answered or to try to figure out could they join some program and get a better rate. Maybe they were a new startup and what could they do to get their feet under them.”
Employers in Ohio are enjoying some of the lowest workers’ comp rates in 40 years. Buehrer says that’s due to reforms and cost trends working to their benefit.
And as for injuries? The state saw about 94,000 workplace-related injuries last year, that’s down 10% since Buehrer took over in 2011. Ohio also sees fewer accidents than the national average.
Buerhrer says the increase to safety grants from $5 million to $15 million have played a big role in that.
“That’s put real money into Ohio workplaces to have safer equipment and to put into place guards and protections and other things that keep workers safe.”
But Buehrer’s time in office hasn’t been without some challenges. That includes a class action lawsuit he inherited from a previous administration: the so-called San Allen case, which alleged that the BWC overcharged a group of employers by hundreds of millions of dollars. After seven years, the sides reached a settlement in 2014.
“We’ve gotten it behind us. The Legislature made some changes to address some of the fundamental issues that were there," said Buehrer. "We entered into a settlement that got dollars back to a few employers who thought they’d been cheated in the whole process and ultimately again I think we have a fairer rating system to date than we did at the time that the lawsuit was filed.”
Buehrer says he tried to create a bureau that encouraged participation and accountability. Making sure he could justify his positions face-to-face is something he learned as a lawmaker, with something he called the “mama’s rule.”
“That being -- if you were taking positions or making votes that you couldn’t go home and explain to your mama then you were probably on the wrong side of the issue,” he said.
Buehrer is leaving the BWC to work with a Columbus-area law firm. When asked if he’ll ever come back to government he says never say never.
“I have a heart for public service, I really enjoy it.”
The bureau’s chief legal officer, Sarah Morrison, will serve as interim administrator.