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Cultural Responsiveness: What Can Schools Learn from a Workers’ Compensation Trust? 

March 6, 2024

By The Puget Sound Worker’s Compensation Trust and Unemployment Pool Leadership Team

In our schools, injured workers are just as committed as any other K12 employee, sharing a common dedication to supporting student learning. Unfortunately, injuries tend to disproportionately affect those engaged in physical labor, a demographic often characterized by multilingual and multicultural backgrounds. These individuals often lack familiarity with the intricacies of the medical system and frequently find themselves without the necessary resources to advocate for their own well-being. Consequently, they continue to fulfill their responsibilities amidst the fog of pain, feeling disconnected from their primary support network due to their absence from work and the overwhelming weight of medical and financial challenges.  This article embarks on an exploration of the transformative journey undertaken by a workers' compensation trust, a journey rooted in cultural sensitivity and racial equity. The result is a pragmatic and actionable strategy that has significantly enhanced the outcomes and prospects for these resilient workers.

Meet Ms. Lee
Ms. Lee is a dedicated school employee, responsible for maintaining a safe and clean environment for students. Her job involves moving heavy items, and she has been provided with safety equipment. The documentation is in English, and she can’t quite decipher some of the more complicated bits. Ms. Lee injures her back, and her supervisor sends her to the district office, where she’s expected to complete a complex form that she doesn’t fully understand. As she tries to get medical help for her back, she receives regular communication from a Claims Adjustor, but the language used is even more confusing than the safety equipment manual. She does her best to be responsive, but the Claims Adjustor is clearly frustrated with her. As Ms. Lee’s medical bills mount, she begins to worry about losing her job, adding to her stress, and making it more difficult for her to focus on the tasks from the Claims Adjuster. She misses several appointments, and the Claims Adjustor declares her “uncooperative.”  Statistically, Ms. Lee is likely to either go back to work without fully healing, risking further injury and potentially permanent disability, or to live in limbo, never fully healing and unable to work effectively and consistently. A life permanently harmed, a good worker lost, and a caring heart removed from a district by a culturally blind system that could not see her or meet her halfway. 

A Change in the Narrative
The Puget Sound Workers Compensation Trust (Trust) operates under the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). PSESD’s end goal, “Success for Each Child and Eliminating the Opportunity Gap by Leading with Racial Equity” requires a commitment to dismantling systemic barriers that hinder racial equity and educational achievement.  The Trust had already adopted clear areas of strategic focus, allowing staff to “check alignment” when making decisions. They collected key data points, such as preferred language and ethnic heritage, to identify languages spoken by injured workers and to facilitate the translation of common forms and documents. Translation services were available to assist multi-lingual injured workers. The Trust’s evolving practice was increasingly aligned with those at the forefront of its field. At the time, they felt leading edge. In retrospect, their efforts were just the beginnings of what was needed for success. The organization’s critical leap came from an unexpected source.

Integrating the Mission
PSESD embarked on a transformative journey, involving deep introspection by every staff member across all departments to align their roles with this mission. Drawing from the diverse and extensive backgrounds of its leadership team, the Trust recognized the opportunity at hand and seized it to conduct a comprehensive review and refinement of their processes, emphasizing racial equity and cultural sensitivity. This examination of how each core process could be mapped to the organization’s mission and values prompted the thinking that was needed to create real traction.

The Trust’s staff embraced PSESD’s initiative for workgroups to map how their efforts directly contribute to the Agency’s mission. A consulting team facilitated discussions with both leadership and staff, actively encouraging them to define the culture they wanted to create, and to make connections between their work and PSESD’s mission. This map, known as their Pathway to Change, became a core document.

This Pathway provided the basis for ongoing conversation around how to ensure staff’s work reflects their values and mission. The Trust leveraged its Pathway to develop a focused framework to support leaders and staff to ensure they are continually moving in their desired direction by focusing on 4Ps: Priorities, People, Processes, and Programs.

Journey to Change diagram

Leveraging the 4Ps started with these questions:

  • Are our organization's priorities crystal clear, and embraced by all staff, regardless of whether classified or certificated?
  • Do we inadvertently get in our way? Are our processes inadvertently creating barriers for people not like me?
  • Are we equipping our representatives, be they staff or external partners, with the active support needed to fully engage in this endeavor?
  • Are we fostering an environment that encourages action, critical thinking, and demonstration rather than mere compliance?
  • Are our programs truly reflective of our priorities? Are we doing everything we can to ensure they are not only accessible but also easily understood and effectively utilized by all concerned parties?

The answers to these questions ignited the transformation. The 4Ps

Mapping the 4Ps

Priorities: Ensuring that our work is aligned with our values and objectives
Ensuring alignment with organizational values and objectives is a shared belief, but how do we verify it? For instance, the Trust aimed to gauge its reputation within the K12 community, a measure critical for fostering confidence in sharing ethnic information among injured workers. Metrics were updated to track the increase in injured workers voluntarily answering heritage questions. Regular surveys were conducted for member districts, injured workers, and vendor partners. These surveys not only addressed service satisfaction but also assessed the Trust's cultural responsiveness and offered participants a chance to suggest improvements.

Staff and Team Meeting formats evolved to encompass recurring discussions, delving into potential inequities within their own systems and operations. Two core questions emerged:

  • What are we overlooking?
  • How can we identify the presence or absence of such inequities?

Processes: Identifying and breaking down barriers
As the Trust redefined its business processes, it shifted from task-oriented thinking to a member-centric approach. The focus wasn't solely on task efficiency but on eradicating barriers, infusing cultural awareness, and broadening perspectives, yielding unexpected outcomes.

Heritage data is now leveraged to ensure complex forms are sent in preferred languages. Discussions of language accessibility resulted in the addition of a translation tool to the Trust's website, staff email, and videoconferencing tools. Telephonic and in-person interpretation services are proactively offered to support multilingual workers.

The Trust's calls have evolved, offering opportunities for injured workers to express cultural preferences such as involving family members in communication and decision-making. Standard questions have been updated to address barriers like transportation and childcare that may affect treatment plan participation.

Beyond claims, a review of methods for onboarding new member districts led to innovative partnerships and a Vendor Partner Onboarding process that emphasizes genuine collaboration, not just transaction facilitation. Vendor processes are scrutinized to ensure no unnecessary barriers are created.

The Trust is actively working on implementing electronic fund transfers, addressing the challenges faced by disadvantaged individuals in accessing traditional banking services. This commitment to improvement extends to all aspects of their work.

People: Because it doesn’t work until it works for everyone
PSESD, like many organizations, incorporates diversity and antiracism principles into its interview process and job descriptions, while also offering learning opportunities and dialogues on systemic inequity. In alignment with these values, the Trust sought to empower staff by introducing formal and informal opportunities for staff to initiate and lead activities and explorations.

For instance, staff worked in small groups to explore the "Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture" defined in Kenneth Jones’ Dismantling Racism, then presented their results at staff meetings to develop an understanding of when and how to interrupt such behavior. Informal opportunities for cultural awareness abound, with staff sharing observations and experiences in common communication channels such as email or MS Teams.

These discussions have practical impact: a discussion of cultural concepts of time can help Claim Adjusters respond differently to injured workers who miss appointments; understanding the challenges faced by displaced persons helps staff see and remove barriers in a complex system that may disproportionately affect first-generation workers.

The Trust also applied awareness to its structure, reorganizing teams around processes to streamline support for injured workers and reduce the risk of them being bounced between disconnected groups.

"Diversity and antiracism awareness were embedded in the hiring process. Leadership competencies embraced antiracist principles. However, active measures were introduced to involve staff in leading discussions and fostering cultural awareness."

Programs: Because good intentions only work when we put them to work
The Trust provides member districts with an annually updated Safety Handbook, translated into commonly spoken community languages. Staff now use heritage information to tailor prevention efforts by translating common safety information sheets into the languages most spoken in their school communities. Districts, too, can leverage visualizations of their claims and incident data to pinpoint needed prevention resources and request translated versions.

Language is not the team’s sole focus, of course. The Trust's Return-to-Work program ensures early reintegration of injured workers into their work communities, promoting healing and peer support.

The Trust conducts surveys to identify improvement opportunities, including addressing increased dissatisfaction with medical care access during the pandemic. Understanding worker frustrations has led to the creation of a Cultural Responsiveness training program for Vendor partners, whose work is perceived as an extension of the organization.

That all sounds nice, but does it make any real difference?

Revisiting Ms. Lee
Rather than being handed a form, Ms. Lee is handed a telephone. Early in the call, the nurse on the other end asks Ms. Lee her preferred language for communications. When Ms. Lee answers “Korean,” the nurse pauses. After a brief wait, a Korean interpreter joins the call. Based on the description of her symptoms, the nurse suggests that Ms. Lee see a physician. She identifies several qualified doctors with officers near Ms. Lee’s home, but the nurse cannot find one that speaks Korean., so The nurse informs Ms. Lee that with a little advance coordination, an interpreter can be provided to accompany her to her office visit.

When the claims team’s follow-up call comes, Ms. Lee is asked about barriers and needs, and she explains that she cannot attend appointments on Tuesdays, due to childcare conflicts. This is noted in her claim documentation so that her Claims Adjustor can accommodate it when scheduling appointments.

Soon after, Mrs. Lee receives an email asking her to call in and provide mailing information so they can send her workers’ compensation payment checks. Ms. Lee replies but does not have the vocabulary to explain why she cannot deposit checks. In frustration, she explains that part in Korean. At least she tried.

Her Claims Adjustor pastes the Korean text into a translation utility, and while it’s not entirely clear, they do get the gist: there are barriers keeping Ms. Lee from getting a bank account. With the help of an interpreter and a single call to Ms. Lee, the adjustor is able to route Ms. Lee’s payment directly to her prepaid debit card. Ms. Lee can pay her bills and focus on healing.

As her back heals, Ms. Lee’s doctor increases the number and range of activities she can do. She’s not ready to go back to her job quite yet, but she is able to do light housework and common tasks. She tries, but being cut off from her colleagues, workplace and routine while dealing with the pain and complex medical conversations has left her depressed and made it difficult to focus.

Ms. Lee’s phone rings unexpectedly: her supervisor is calling. She may not be able ready to do her own job yet, but they can temporarily redistribute work to let her take up the lighter tasks of several colleagues, allowing Ms. Lee to return to work in a light duty capacity.

With a routine and the ability to reconnect with her colleagues, Ms. Lee’s depression improves rapidly. Her co-workers keep a sharp eye out to ensure she isn’t pushing beyond her approved activities, and her back continues to heal. At the start of the new semester, Ms. Lee is scheduled to return to her original job. As her light duty assignment ends, Ms. Lee arrives at work one day to find a thick envelope waiting for her. Her heart leaps for a moment: has the district’s plan changed? She pulls the documents out of the envelope and lets out a relieved laugh. She’s holding the Safety Handbook and the instructions for her safety equipment – which have been translated into Korean.

Rooting Processes in Cultural Responsiveness and Racial Equity – A Viable Business Strategy
Puget Sound Workers’ Compensation Trust was doing all the things that other organizations were doing to try to be inclusive – in some cases, a little more. And it wasn’t moving the needle. An examination of how core processes could be aligned to the organization’s mission and values, and a framework for focusing those efforts provided the foundation needed to create real traction.

The journey toward racial equity and cultural responsiveness undertaken by the Trust and its parent agency, Puget Sound ESD, illustrates the power of alignment with values as a sound, practical business strategy, and the tangible difference it can make in the lives of injured workers. It also demonstrates that breaking down barriers and prioritizing cultural awareness can enhance any organization’s progress toward creating a more equitable and supportive environment.

The PSWCT-UP Leadership Team includes:

Clairmonte Cappelle, Executive Director - 

Diana Brown, Technology Director - 

Mary Brannon-Jackson, Finance Director - 

Yzabelle Nelson, Client Relations Director -

The Puget Sound Workers’ Compensation Trust and Unemployment Pool (PSWCT-UP) operates under the auspices of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) in Renton, WA. Members of the leadership team can be reached by phone at 425-917-7667. 






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