View From the Slough, Too
The Art and Science of Branch Assist
I originally wrote this article back in 2001, and hundred of people read it on CADO, but at some point the link to the article became bad. So, for years I have not even been able to access it. I thought the article was lost for good until I recently discovered it on an old backup data disk. Because the conditions in catadjusting in 2001 and 2007 are so similar, I thought it would be a good time to update and revise the article to make it more current and to repost it on CADO. I know there is a danger of sharing too many secrets about how to get by in this business, especially when so many thousands have been added to our ranks with the storms of 2004 and 2005. But it is mainly those with experience and knowledge that will be able to benefit from this information. And I have always been willing to help those who deserve to be helped.
The years 2006 and 2007 have been rough years for many of us. There have been too few disasters and too little work to go around. Many of the best and the brightest have found other ways to get through the year, taking staff positions, selling roofs, flipping burgers, or whatever. Many among us are in the slough. Those who have been working catastrophes for awhile know that we have been here before.
The reference to the slough, by the way, is to the Slough (rhymes with view) of Despond from Pilgrim's Progress. Christian, the main character, begins his journey from the City of Destruction toward the City of God accompanied by Pliable. Very early on, he encounters the dread Slough of Despond. "Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire." Pliable turns back at the Slough, leaving Christian alone until Help comes along to pull him from the muck. Help then explains the nature of the Slough -- that it is made up of "many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together and settle in this place: and this is the reason of the badness of this ground."
This is a fitting description of how many of us are feeling in those times when the last assignment fades too far behind and nothing but clear skies hang overhead. We begin to wonder if we will ever work again. And we are, in a sense, more vulnerable because we work at the whim of others.
I spent this year, as I have spent some previous years working branch assist. It is not as fun as a cat assignment, not always as intense as a cat assignment, not as easy as some cat assignments, but in some cases it turns out to be almost as profitable as a cat assignment. And it kept me working at a profession I love.
Branch assist assignments consist of temporarily replacing staff adjusters for the handling of their daily claims or being assimilated into a vendor’s branch office on a temporary basis to work a small catastrophe.
I know there are some of us who do not work branch assist. Some have made the decision to keep themselves available for when disaster strikes. Others just don't like what can seem like the daily grind of branch assist. I respect that decision. I would have been hard pressed this year if a Hurricane Andrew or a Northridge Earthquake had occurred before June of this year. In fact, I missed the hurricane season of 2004 altogether because I was working a branch assist assignment that started with winter storms in New England on January 15 and finally left Boston on December 21 of that year. It would have been difficult to get free for months after a major event without burning bridges and harming my reputation. There are other reasons, however, why branch assist assignments are shunned by some catadjusters. Some of these are not necessarily valid. I hope to deal with some of those issues later in this article.
First, however, I think it helps to focus on just what are our primary strengths as catadjusters, at least as I understand them. When do insurance companies need us the most? As I have thought things through during those long hours on the road on those days when my vehicle racked up 250 or more miles between appointments, it occurs to me that we have two primary strengths. First, we are experts at handling catastrophe claims. We know when hail has struck a roof versus when a ballpeen hammer has struck a roof. We have trained ourselves to see dented siding when others need to wait until the sun is at the right angle. We know a plaster crack from weight of ice and snow as opposed to a plaster crack due to settlement.
The second primary strength is that we can handle enormous numbers of claims. We can work our way through 60, 80, 100 or more claims in a month, closing most of them as we go. We are the "fixers" of the industry. We take an unmanageable situation and bring it under control as quickly as possible. There's nothing that can get an insurance company caught up on their claims as quickly as a good team of catadjusters. Sometimes all it takes is one good catadjuster. We can help because we work 100+ hour weeks, week after week, in less than ideal conditions.
My experience with branch assist assignments is that they more often draw on this second strength than on the first. Usually, when a non-cat branch assist assignment comes along, it is because the vendor or carrier is facing an excessive level of claims and a shortage of personnel. There may be some wind or hail claims scattered among the others, or possibly an ice dam or a reopen from the last catastrophe to reinspect. But by and large non-cat branch assists consist of a mish mosh of all kinds of claims, including fires, thefts, vandalism, power outages, leaking plumbing, sewer backups, and every other conceivable combination of circumstances for which people file claims.
Which leads me to the first reason to do branch assist assignments, at least from time to time. It is a way to keep our skills honed in areas that the typical cat assignment does not. In 1994 and 1995 I worked for State Farm Auto in a specialty unit handling only total thefts and total loss fires. The emphasis was two-fold: 1) Conclude the legitimate claims as quickly as possible and get people back to their pre-loss condition and 2) investigating thoroughly all theft and fires as it was believed that 60 to 80 per cent of the stolen and burned vehicles in the Los Angeles area were "owner give-ups". It was interesting work, and except for the caseload and the local middle management I enjoyed it thoroughly. I rarely get a chance to do this level of investigation any more. In fact it really gets in the way when we run into an OTH (Other Than Hail) claim in the process of trying to inspect and adjust 150 real hail claims. We hardly have time for investigation and the best we can usually do is to refer it to the carrier's SIU unit and turn the file back in. But branch assist gives us a chance to pursue the investigation into how a fire began or whether a theft is legitimate. We get to handle some aspects of claim handling we would otherwise not get to see in the course of a dozen cat assignments. It gets us into other parts of the policy than those generally involved in cat claims. We often have to look to the policy to determine whether to pay for a tree, whether masonry veneer is covered, whether there is a sewer backup endorsement and whether it has a special limit. But branch assist takes us all over the policy to some of the finer points with which we would not otherwise have to deal. This is especially true on commercial claims where a company may issue dozens of different policy forms, each with their own special quirks.
In the year 2000 on branch assist I was assigned a file on a repossessed property by the mortgage holder's insurance company. The instructions were "inspect and appraise any damage present. Write a separate estimate for each cause of loss". I found eleven separate causes of loss. Some were covered losses like wind, freeze, a plumbing leak, burned linoleum, and vandalism. Others were not covered -- ground water, termites, rodents, and spilled pollutant. So I wrote eleven estimates, indicated which were for covered losses and which were not, estimated the approximate date of loss where possible (the home had been vacant for three years), and turned in the file. It was a great exercise in investigation, determination of cause, and searching the policy for language concerning whether a loss was covered or not. Assignments like this allow us to mimic Grisham from CSI and get downright forensic.
Branch assist, likewise, occasionally takes me over to the liability/casualty side of insurance. I have tried to make it quite plain that I will be very desperate before I ever handle bodily injury again. I tend to see personal injury and worker's comp as the dark side of claims. I don't think I could handle a worker's comp file with my current knowledge even if I wanted to. I respect those who do, and some who work there don't share my feelings about it. But I have really had enough experiences with bodily injury liability claims to last a lifetime. However, the liability claims that only involve property have some interesting problems unique to them. Among these are the obvious considerations of when is negligence present and how do I convince someone to accept a settlement with non-recoverable depreciation. Prior damage seems to rear its ugly head more often with some types of liability claims as well. With a first party claim prior damage can sometimes be dealt with by taking two deductibles. With a third party claim, the issue of prior damage has more chance of becoming heated because I am not writing for the prior damage at all. If the policy has a liability deductible and requires the insured's approval on the settlement, it can become incredibly complicated.
One of the reasons I think many people avoid branch assist work is the general feeling that it pays less money. I have not found that to always be the case, but the branch assist assignments have to be weighed carefully. There has been a tendency recently to try to gain our services at discount rates which seem to get lower and lower. I was offered an assignment in 1999 at $300 per day for five days a week. For $1500 dollars a week, I could hardly hope to make a sufficient profit to stay on the road. After the $1000 in expenses per week and the taxes, flipping burgers would be more profitable. So, of course, I declined the offer. I just stayed home and drove a cab until a good assignment came along. But someone took that assignment. I recently talked to someone who was working branch assist for $250.00 a day. He was able to take it only because it was within commuting distance of his home and he was technically retired. I have some grave concerns about these levels of per diem compensation. I fear that if the vendors and carriers think they can get our services for this budget rate, they will continue to make these types of offers.
Another good reason to work branch assist, particularly extended branch assist, is to get a better handle on the reasons why files reopen. No matter how good an adjuster is, there will be files that reopen. And I suspect that is another reason many do not work branch assist - so they can avoid reopened files. In general, these are not fun files to work. And the reasons are not always what we would expect. If it's justified to do so, we can write an estimate that allows for everything the insured is looking for and some files will still reopen. There are some files that seem impossible to close and keep closed. Like it or not, there are some contractors and some insureds who will always be convinced that insurance companies exist to rip them off. I shock people sometimes when I tell them I spent eleven years working as an ordained minister and this is a more honest way to make a living. (For those who think this is a slur against ordained ministers, it is not. It is a statement about the ethical standards required of us who walk a fine line between the Department of Insurance and every attorney who smells deep pockets.) Those who think we are there to cheat them will treat almost any settlement offer with distrust. On the other side of the coin, some claims examiners and claims managers seem to believe that their raison d’être is to ask any question about a file that has not been answered, whether it is relevant or not. This type of micro-management has been somewhat in vogue for several years. So the files reopen to obtain some piece of information that may or may not be germaine to the claim. We all have our different personalities and styles of claim handling. Some intuitively step from A to Z and some need B,C,D,E and all the other steps in between. The plain truth is that we are here to do what the carriers have hired us to do, so if they need more information we need to find the information for them.
Even on cat assignments, Jennifer and I are often the last to leave, so I have had opportunity to hear what is said about my colleagues after they’ve gone. One of the biggest complaints I have heard about those in our profession is that there are too many reopens to deal with after we leave. One of the best ways to learn what closes a file and keeps it closed is to do some extended branch assist or clean up assignments. The result, hopefully, is more satisfaction from our customers about our work product.
I have been a staffer and an independent. One of the real problems of our profession is that each has too little understanding of what life is like for the other. Branch assist is a type of limbo between the two. It should be no secret that some staffers look only at the gross amount of money we earn and are envious. It is hard to appreciate the vast difference between gross and net unless one has been on the road, trying to keep expenses from overtaking income. And they envy us because at some point we move on and leave them working the same daily grind, including any of our files that reopen. We, on the other hand, sometimes wish for the benefits and the job security and the short days (a mere 8 or 9 hours a day) and the weekends off that staffers enjoy. Working extended branch assist often means spending far more time with staff adjusters and clerical staff than the average cat assignment allows. This can lead to a far better understanding of each other.
There are definite positives and negatives to working branch assist, and we all, as independents, need to make our own decisions whether to make ourselves available for such assignments. As I write this I have just finished a particularly grueling six month branch assist assignment. I am starting to recover from the exhaustion. And, at the same time I am starting to look for the next assignment and coping with the usual fears that I may never work again. But it has been fun and challenging overall. I would recommend branch assist for anyone who wants to work more than a couple months a year or who wants to broaden their experience to include claims not usually encountered on the CAT circuit.