In Good Hands ... With Right Job

Seacoast Online — Friday, March 24, 2006

By Becky Yerak
Knight Ridder/Tribune

CHICAGO — It pays to be a mail carrier, a pilot or a paramedic – at least if you're buying insurance from Allstate Corp.

The Northbrook, Ill.-based insurer is providing discounts of up to 10 percent in four states to consumers who work in several dozen occupations, including architects, biologists and economists.

The nation's second-largest car and home insurer has found that workers in those occupations and dozens of others, including painters, photographers and plumbers, file fewer claims.

Consumer advocates, however, say a disproportionate number of such discounts are going to higher-end jobs, leaving many service-sector workers who most need a break out in the cold.

The issue of insurance companies looking for newer ways to assess risk was highlighted March 9, when legislation was introduced in New Jersey that would prohibit insurers from using education or occupation as underwriting factors. Under the proposed law, insurers couldn't force consumers to disclose their schooling or profession.

The legislation was prompted by an outcry from consumer advocates after it was reported that Geico, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., charged less-educated customers with blue-collar jobs more than highly educated, white-collar consumers.

"There's no connection between how someone drives and whether they make a claim based on whether they're a doctor or a writer for a newspaper," Neil Cohen, a New Jersey assemblyman sponsoring the bill, said in an interview Wednesday.

For its part, Allstate, which so far is offering the occupational discount program in South Carolina, Alabama, Idaho and Alaska, said it doesn't use a person's job to charge more or to deny insurance, just to give discounts.

"It's a great example of how Allstate provides consumers with competitively priced insurance based on an individual's risks," said Allstate spokesman Mike Siemienas.

Allstate declined to specify how many fewer claims an editor, for example, files compared to the average consumer. But "our figures show that people in these occupations do file fewer claims, and Allstate has identified them as safer drivers," he said.

Still, an Illinois consumer advocate frowns on Allstate's program, saying it smacks of "redlining," a term used in the banking industry when financial institutions intentionally discriminate by making fewer loans in minority neighborhoods.

"This type of discounting avoids covering lower-income workers, many of whom represent social and ethnic minority groups, in favor of the higher-wage-scale jobs," said Lynda DeLaforgue, co-director for Citizen Action/Illinois.

Restaurant and childcare workers, she said, already have a tough time getting affordable health insurance.

"They don't need any additional burdens of discrimination against them for other lines of insurance," DeLaforgue said.

Allstate counters that its occupational discounts include workers from a variety of occupations and don't favor one demographic over another.

The discounts highlight how the insurance industry and its actuaries are constantly looking for new and more sophisticated ways to slice and dice the data they gather to determine risk factors.

The last big thing in figuring out how to price insurance premiums was the use of credit history, which many insurers swear is accurate, but which continues to come under attack from consumer advocates.

"The first thing our department of banking and insurance permitted was the use of credit scoring," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, which supports the proposed New Jersey legislation.

"This latest debacle is taking the same group of people who are going to be affected by the credit score and dump additional screening on them to get them to pay higher rates because of where they work or if they could afford to go to college," she said.

Waiters and waitresses, she points out, aren't among those getting a pricing break from Allstate.

But Allstate does see a correlation between occupation and the likelihood of filing claims, which account for about 75 percent of the cost of an insurance product.

Allstate collects more data than any other insurer, with the exception of Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm, giving it more information to refine its pricing structure, an executive said recently.

"This is an arms race," Robert Block, Allstate's vice president of investor relations, said of pricing strategies at an investor conference in Florida.

"People ask: 'Is there a law of diminishing returns? How much more can you do?' But our actuaries believe there's still an unknown factor out there equal to the weight of credit," he said. "And credit was an extremely powerful factor."

Allstate began offering discounts in Hawaii in September 2004, though those price breaks are limited to about 10 occupations.

In November 2004, it began testing similar programs in South Carolina and Alabama, offering 10 percent discounts to about 20 occupations and 5 percent to another 30 occupations.

Last September, Allstate adopted the same program in Idaho. Alaska followed last month.

"There are additional states that are looking to use the occupation discounts, but until it's filed, we would not disclose those states," Allstate's Siemienas said. But "it looks as if we will be offering this in some additional states."

Allstate operations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota already offer discounts to police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

Allstate's biggest competitor, State Farm, doesn't use occupation or education as a rating variable, spokesman Dick Luedtke said.

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