Will Florida Ever Strike a Deal on Workers’ Comp?

With the state's law in limbo and so many players at the table -- employers, unions, insurers, attorneys and lawmakers -- it will be hard to reach an agreement.
by | December 2016
Tom Feeney is leading an effort to overhaul the state's workers' compensation law. (AP)

Workers’ compensation is broken in Florida. Putting it back together will be a difficult, time-consuming and potentially fruitless task for legislators next year.

In recent months, courts have issued a series of rulings that have served to dismantle the state’s workers’ compensation law, which had its last major overhaul back in 2003. Most significantly, the Florida Supreme Court found that the law’s cap on attorneys’ fees is unconstitutional. It also found that the time limit placed on disability payments was too short. As a result, workers’ comp insurance premiums are set to spike. Depending on which estimate you trust, employers could be paying anywhere from 25 to 45 percent more over the next couple of years.

Business groups will pressure the legislature to come up with a new plan, but they recognize it’s going to be difficult. Workers’ comp affects many different players -- employers, insurance companies, health providers and attorneys, not to mention workers themselves. Often there isn’t agreement even within a given sector about the right approach. Small businesses view workers’ comp issues differently than corporations, for instance. “Most groups want to see reform, but there are very different versions of what that would look like,” says Tom Feeney, president of Associated Industries of Florida, a business advocacy group.

That association alone has split into five different working groups, all seeking consensus on possible legislative proposals. Assuming the internal squabbling works out, Feeney and his allies know that their complaints about excessive or unnecessary legal fees will receive serious pushback from the trial lawyers who take workers’ cases to court and can profit from large awards. “Attorneys’ fees are the driving force of interest to people on both sides -- labor and the employers’ side,” says Alan Kalinoski, who chairs the workers’ compensation section of the Florida Bar Association.

Legislators aren’t going to like the feeling of being cross-buffeted by various powerful forces -- labor, business, attorneys, insurance companies and health-care providers. Making matters more difficult is the fact that Florida is a term-limit state. No more than eight legislators are still around who lived through the big debate on the issue 13 years ago.

And any agreement that can be reached will have to pass muster with the courts, which have dramatically altered the legal landscape around the issue. The whole business of trying to make sure that workers are adequately compensated and treated for injury while keeping costs under control for employers is inherently difficult. It’s not clear how, given the new legal constraints, legislators are going to be able to strike a reasonable bargain. “There are a number of reasons this issue is more complex than what legislators typically deal with,” says Feeney, a former Florida House speaker. “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that the legislature will act.”