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Director of integrated disability management
Los Angeles Unified School District
Dawn Watkins thought she was destined for a career in retail before she perused a career counseling magazine on a cross-country trip to California featuring an article about careers in insurance.
Fascinated by the industry’s potential, the native, then-nondriving New Yorker decided she would give a career in the sector a try. “I’ve never regretted it — I love this world that I work in,” she said.
Ms. Watkins is now director of integrated disability management for the second-largest U.S. school system, which has about 60,000 employees, including its own police force, and has long since learned to operate a motor vehicle in the driver’s mecca that is Los Angeles. But she started her career as a claims examiner with the San Francisco-based State Compensation Insurance Fund and later worked as assistant claims manager for the Los Angeles-based Southern California Gas Co.
She started working in the industry when “thinking about the impact on the injured worker was not popular,” but decided she would pursue a radically different approach — not just managing the risk, but doing so with compassion, including explaining the claims process to injured workers, anticipating their needs and “always treating them with dignity and respect.”
Later, while working as the workers compensation administrator for the city of Torrance, California, she established open lines of communication with the doctors treating the city’s injured workers and opposing legal counsel. “The adversarial approach that was so common in California workers comp was not the approach that I used,” she said. “We each had a role in this workers comp process, and at the center of this process was the injured worker.”
Sharon Douglas, CEO of RehabWest Inc. in San Marcos, California, who has partnered with Ms. Watkins on disability management programs, called her a “real innovative thinker.”
“The Rose Lady,” as Ms. Watkins — an avid gardener — is known, advises young people to be open to all opportunities and continually educate themselves, including through networking and pursuing professional certifications even if they don’t pertain to their current positions.
“Throughout my career, my opportunities came about because I was prepared for each and every one,” she said.
The Women to Watch awards program has been significantly expanded this year.