The Pony Express

I was surprised recently to learn a 20 year Worker’s Compensation professional did not remember the "pony express," at least not in the workers' compensation context. In the course of a casual conversation, when I mentioned the "pony express," there was general consensus about the “old days.” and some knowing nods. But as discussion continued, I realized that this reference had been presumed a joke by a long-time practitioner who thought I was being facetious about horses in the old west. I was not. As late as the 1990s, the Florida OJCC did business with "the Pony Express," which was a courier company that was perhaps affiliated with Borg Warner, Inc., Baker Enterprises, and Wells Fargo.

Not so many years ago, the division of Worker’s Compensation was interrelated with the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. Each was part of the Department of Labor and Employment Security, before the significant changes to Florida's executive branch early this century. While the OJCC had adjudicatory responsibilities, it was not a custodian of records. The records regarding Worker’s Compensation cases and claims were all maintained by the Division.

Those records were printed on a fibrous substance derived from trees and other plants, colloquially referred to in the “old days“ as “paper.“ individuals would use machinery or other instruments to inscribe information, words, and numbers on this “paper.“ In order to seek payment of Worker’s Compensation benefits these papers were sent to the division of Worker’s Compensation by US mail (yes, documents were created in one location and physically moved to another location where they were read, interpreted, and misfiled). In the paper age, we filed documents by mailing them to Tallahassee. 

When a workers' compensation hearing was imminent, the judge would require the compilation of various papers that had been submitted by various parties. Over the course of a case, such documents had been periodically "filed" with the Division in Tallahassee. We referred to the compilation colloquially as the “Division file.” And, that Division file had to make its way from the Division office in Tallahassee to the assigned a judge in one of the District Offices. Back in those days, District Offices were not referred to by city names as they are today. There was an alphabetic code instead, but that is for another post. 

Most practitioners today remain familiar with the US Postal Service, Federal Express, and United Postal Service. However, there are a variety of other package delivery services, including entities such as DHL, TNT, and others. But then, as now, the state of Florida operated on a procurement contract system. And the contract it had signed was with a company called “The Pony Express.“ So, a request for the Division file would be sent to Tallahassee in preparation for a hearing. 

The Pony Express driver would arrive in the District Office with canvas bags filled with the files that had been requested. She or he would then retrieve similar canvas bags containing files previously requested and utilized in other hearings. It was common for those Division files to increase in volume during their time in the District Office. Some became voluminous. Those files that the Pony Express driver picked up from the Division were then transported back to the Division in Tallahassee for storage, to await the next time the file was needed by the District. 

Once the files were back in Tallahassee, in the really old days, the papers were warehoused. But, there was a technological innovation that assisted with that in the 1980s. It was called microfilm or microfiche. Images of documents could be created, similarly to the way documents today are scanned and saved as images in a PDF (portable document format). In those days, the pages were scanned and the images were saved on a spool (film) or sheet (fiche) of transparent film. The images were very small, and so a special machine was required to read them. This was a boon to record keeping and storage. 

After the Division began using microfiche, the storage of paper diminished. In my early practice there were instances in which I requested portions of Division files (former claims, etc.) and the Division would print those documents from a microfiche and mail to me. The process for such record retrieval involved submitting a written request to the Division, which would reply with an estimated cost for duplication (printing from the fiche). The requester then submitted a check (a method of moving money in which a paper document was transmitted that ordered the requester's bank to pay money to the recipient, in this case the Division). 

Once the check "cleared," meaning the Division had the requester's money, then the images were printed on paper and sent to the requester. But, when the Division sent documents to the requester, they were sent through the U.S. Postal Service (the folks that still deliver those holiday cards and various advertisements to the metal box in front of your home). It was never clear to me why the Division used the U.S. Mail to send documents to a requester, but used the Pony Express to move files back and forth to Tallahassee.

Thus, while no horses or riders were involved, the Florida OJCC used the Pony Express. And if you are more than twenty-five years old, the OJCC used the Pony Express in your lifetime. It is easy for us, today, to scan and email a document instantly. It is normal, today, for records to exists only in PDF, and for our requests to be answered with only digital files instead of paper copies. As easy and normal as that is today, it may be a struggle to comprehend that PDF was only first conceived and discussed in 1991, less than thirty years ago. 

And, much else has changed in the meantime as well. While credit cards have been around since 1950 the technology and information evolution in the last 30 years has been dramatic. In 1998 the idea for PayPal was revolutionary. The inspiration of Digicash and later Bitcoin are last-century ideas that have recently become common place. Today, in many instances, a request for records might be submitted by email, paid for through a digital transfer, and the required records transmitted back again by email in a PDF. 

And, today, we all find this perfectly normal. It is intriguing therefore to remember that just a couple of decades ago we were all creating paper-based documents (and using tons of paper). We were sending those papers around to one another in trucks and vans (and burning millions of barrels of oil). In this process we were both destroying forests and generating "green house gasses." 

It is important that we recognize not merely where we are today. Let's recognize that much has improved in the world of workers' compensation claims. Gone are the 1990s, the days of the Pony Express, couriers, postal drivers, and paper. As we revel in the efficiency of today, let us remember the struggles of yesterday. And, be not complacent, there is no telling what is coming tomorrow. 


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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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