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Neil Gilberg

Gilberg takes state post in Albany

By Jeanne Sager
ALBANY — April 8, 2008 — On the very day news of a scandal broke that would end the career of former Governor Eliot Spitzer, one of his last appointees took the oath to uphold the law of the land.
Neil Gilberg had nothing to worry about.
The former Sullivan County Clerk was tailor-made for his role as advocate for business for the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board.
The Hurleyville resident spent 25 years as general manager of Kutsher’s, a job that entailed smoothing plenty of ruffled feathers, plenty of finagling to make things work for every party.
It’s good old-fashioned Sullivan hospitality. It’s also the job of the advocate for business for the state Workers’ Compensation Board.
Created by the state legislature to answer business owners’ request for one place to call to have their questions answered, the advocate – Gilberg – acts as liaison between the business community and the board.
He works with the governor’s office, the Legislature, the State Insurance Fund, the New York Compensation Insurance Rating Board and the Governor's Office of Regulatory Reform, and of course, business owners.
“When they’re having a problem,” he said of the latter, “I try to cut through the red tape and help them.”
That means helping mega corporations like the Hyatt and Helmsley hotels Gilberg worked for in the early part of his career and the Mom and Pop-type operations he’s familiar with in Sullivan County.
“Big and small, most of the concerns are the same,” he admitted. “They’re concerned with the cost of coverage or they’ve had a lapse in coverage.”
In a month, Gilberg said he’s already saved business owners more than $20,000 by making sense of the complex workers’ compensation system.
Having hit the ground running with his March 10th swearing in, Gilberg drives to Albany each day from his Hurleyville home.
“I’m in the car by 6 and I’m at my desk by 8 every morning,” he said with a laugh.
He’s counting on an all-wheel drive vehicle to get him to and fro this winter, and he’s got his fingers crossed that highway crews upstate are as good as those here in the county.
Wading into the system created in 1914 in answer to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that claimed the lives of 146 workers, Gilberg said he’s enjoying the work.
“Because there’s recently been workers’ compensation reform, it’s a good time for me to start because a lot is new,” he explained.
Helping him navigate the process is his hospitality experience plus time spent in the clerk’s office after his governor’s appointment to that office last spring.
“This is exactly the same thing as the county clerk’s office – just on a grander scale,” Gilberg explained.
In a strange twist of fate, it’s the clerk’s job that put him where he is today.
A councilman for the Town of Fallsburg, Gilberg was the Sullivan County Democratic Party’s choice for county clerk last year. His name was sent in to the governor’s office, and a rubber stamp was expected.
Then Spitzer threw a monkey wrench into the age-old process. He advertised for people interested in taking the clerk’s seat. He wanted to make his own choice.
At the end of the interview process, Spitzer decided the county’s choice was the right one all along. Gilberg got the nod for clerk.
Retiring from Kutsher’s, Gilberg moved into the government center and took the reins of the clerk’s office last May. But when his bid to retain the seat failed, Gilberg took time to regroup.
Then he called Albany.
“I’d met the governor several times, and he kind of knew what I was about and so did his appointment secretary,” Gilberg explained.
It was the governor’s office who suggested he put in his name for the opening in the workers’ compensation office.
“I was skeptical,” Gilberg admitted. “I kind of wonder why they chose me for this particular job.”
But he earned the approval of Workers’ Compensation Board Chair Zachary Weiss, securing the governor’s appointment.
Then he started the job.
“It’s perfect,” he said.
Coming out of the hospitality industry, Gilberg is readily able to handle the 200 or more calls that come into the business advocate’s office each month with requests for everything from requirements for coverage to problems with insurance carriers.
The staff, he said, is “extremely professional and well-trained,” and the business owners he deals with are grateful to have someone on their side.
“I can’t help with everything, but I’ll try!” Gilberg noted.
His best advice for business owners – and the general public – is to stay on top of workers’ compensation issues.
“When you get a letter, respond to it,” he said. “Don’t let it sit.”
With much of the board’s work on a computer, the electronic clock is always running. People who leave a letter until the end of the month might not realize they’ve just let a deadline slip away, and with reform came a hike in the fines and penalties levied for infractions.
“If you get a letter, answer the letter. That will stop the clock,” Gilberg explained.
He’s also quick to explain the necessity of a state system for workers’ compensation.
“It helps the employees because they have guaranteed coverage and it helps the employers because they’re less likely to get sued if they’re providing the proper coverage,” he said.
Perhaps that’s why he’s calling the job a “how can I help you position.”

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