Ladies and gentlemen:

We are here today to swear in two new Commissioners [Renée C. Riggsbee and Christopher Scott], and I do not want to detract from the honor due them. But at their invitation I would like to talk briefly today about the importance of the work of our Industrial Commission. As you know, the Commission has reason to be a little schizophrenic-it is a creature of the Executive Branch of our State Government, but it is also a vital and indispensable part of the judicial system.

Much of the work of the Industrial Commission involves administering the Workers' Compensation system. Effective administration of this system is extremely important to the working families of North Carolina and their employers as well as to the judicial system. "The purpose of the Workers' Compensation act is not only to provide a swift and certain remedy to an injured worker, but also to insure a limited and determinate liability for employers." Barnhardt v. Yellow Cab.

More than one billion dollars is paid in workers' compensation insurance premiums by North Carolina businesses and employers each year. This is a substantial financial cost to employers. Injured workers' families, of course, may well be entirely dependent on workers' compensation medical and indemnity benefits. Without these payments, injured workers' families might be unable to cope financially.

I serve on the Court of Appeals where appeals from the full Commission comprise a little over 10% of our appellate case load this year (74 cases at mid year and about 140 right now). While that is a lot, we recognize that we see only the "tip of the iceberg" of your workload.

But I need not tell you that the Industrial Commission is a high volume business. Last year you handled 87,000 claims and supervised payment of over $208 million dollars in medical benefits and almost $311 million in compensation altogether. Together your cooperative efforts have reduced the case backlog from over 6000 cases down to fewer than 700. Particularly significant is the remarkable success of your mediation program which in 1996-97 resulted in 67% of the cases referred to mediation being settled without hearing. This kind of success has cut more than 4000 cases out of the hearing process in one year. Also of additional significance is the 37,000 inquiries you all field from citizens and potential beneficiaries. Your being available to help injured employees and their families with straight, unbiased information is beyond value to people in time of stress. Whether you are a Deputy Commissioner, in the Claims Department, the Statistical Section or whatever part you play in this system, you obviously have worked hard. On behalf of the people of North Carolina, I am here to say thank you. Your work is important, it is valuable and we appreciate it.

When injury strikes a North Carolina worker, more people than just the injured person are affected. If the worker is married or has dependents, her or his spouse and dependents probably are worried about how the bills are going to be paid on a timely basis. Family members notice the stress and how it builds up after the injury and before workers' compensation benefits actually begin to reach the family. This is tough on everyone at anytime but around family holidays, we are especially grateful to you who continue to work to assure prompt flow of appropriate benefits and timely resolution of claims. Your efforts to see that workers' compensation claims move expeditiously is largely taken for granted. But today, as we add to the Commission two new Commissioners to help increase your effectiveness, I want to say thank you for your hard work and great accomplishments these last several years. Because neither you at the Commission, nor we in the judiciary, are 100% current in our work, I want to ask that you rededicate your efforts in the coming year to the prompt and fair resolution of claims so that workers and their employers will have the least possible inconvenience and delay and unnecessary cost.

I am here to ask you to rededicate yourself to do even more. Let's be clear whose work is most important here. I am not talking about just the Chairman and the Commissioners or even the Deputy Commissioners. I mean to say thank you to everyone-from the least among us-the newest employee as well as the career veteran-the least well paid along with the 30 year veteran supervisor. Thank you and pour it on. Please remember that each day that you shorten the workers' compensation process means lower costs to employers and greater peace of mind for employees. Each of you at the Commission is a vital part of getting cases handled properly and efficiently. Once again, thank you for the work you have done, are doing, and will do. Your work is very important to the people of North Carolina.

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