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Reform of workers' compensation debated

Injured workers rally as a Senate committee looks at ways to improve the system.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001


Injured workers rally as a Senate committee looks at ways to improve the system.

TALLAHASSEE -- How do you get a room full of working folks to cheer for attorney's fees?

First, make sure they're injured workers who have relied on attorneys for their workers' compensation claims.

Next, pack them into a meeting of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

Then, let them know the committee is considering reducing how much the attorneys get paid -- and therefore, how much work they can do on injured employees' behalf.

"If you want to cap off attorneys' fees, then cap them off for them," said Gail Leslie, of Pensacola, referring to the insurance companies and the money they pay their lawyers. The crowd cheered wildly for Leslie, 36, who was injured in 1997 while moving a chair in her job as a hairdresser.

"If I didn't have an attorney representing me, I'd have almost laid down and died," said Claude Taylor of Orlando, who has been unable to work since a 1,800-pound switch fell on him in his job installing telephones.

The Legislature is in the midst of its latest attempt to improve the workers' compensation system. Bills are working their way through the House and Senate that are aimed at protecting workers without bankrupting employers.

There is evidence that the current system fails on both ends.

Considering that Florida has some of the highest worker-compensation premiums in the country combined with comparatively low benefits, it's clear that "there's something happening in the middle that's not in any of our best interests," said Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, chairman of the Senate committee reviewing the bill.

More than 150 workers from around the state arrived Monday at the Capitol for a rally on the issue, and many attended the committee hearing afterward. Many came with canes or crutches, in slings or neck braces.

Reducing fees for attorneys was criticized by many in the audience. Latvala said the proposal limiting attorneys' fees to the amount of money paid to an employee probably would not survive in the final bill.

Another idea is to remove all the exemptions that let so many businesses opt out of the workers' compensation system.

Many construction workers are not covered by workers' compensation because they are considered subcontractors. Removing the exemptions would mean that more people are paying premiums, but it also could mean more claims.

Removing the exemptions was endorsed by Rosemary Eure of Sarasota, a past president of Florida Workers Advocates Inc., an association of workers' compensation attorneys that helped to assemble many of the injured employees who came to Tallahassee on Monday.

Several who spoke did not address the bill before the Senate but said the overall system had failed them.

Since suffering multiple injuries on his job of unloading frozen foods for Publix, Artist Lee McRae of St. Petersburg said he has been receiving $121 per week on workers' compensation. He's grateful to his wife, who is working extra hard to make sure the bills get paid.

Because of the number of speakers Monday, Latvala said the committee would work next week to discuss 42 proposed amendments and hear from people representing other views on the workers' compensation bill.

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