Florida's Governor turned Senate candidate, Charlie Crist, has quietly signed into law a blatantly unfair new workers' compensation bill that was heavily promoted, surprise-surprise, by the Florida Chamber Of Commerce, and passed by the Republican-dominated legislature. This regressive legislation dramatically un-levels the playing field between workers injured on the job and the employers who deny their claims for compensation benefits.
We're not talking here about scammers trying to fake or lie about the severity of workplace injuries and make out like bandits. Insurance company investigators and attorneys know how to sniff those types out. We're talking about firefighters, police officers, and other hard-working Floridians whose only recourse once their worker compensation claim is denied is to hire a lawyer and file an appeal.
What the new law does to create such injustice is to put a cap on the fees that injured workers can pay the lawyer or firm that's handling their appeal -- a cap of $1,500 -- without putting any cap whatsoever on the fees paid by insurance companies to their own corporate attorneys.
Does anyone out there who has ever had to hire legal representation -- at fees that average over $125 per hour -- think that you can get a decent lawyer, hell, any lawyer, to take a challenging injury claim case against a big insurance company's legal team, for a maximum return of $1,500? Sure, and I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to consider buying...
When it comes to shamelessly pandering to business interests and wooing corporate contributors to his Senate campaign, Charlie Crist has hit a home run with this bill signing. But it's a tainted dinger that ought to be ruled the foul ball that it really is. And that's just what many experts believe will happen before too long, in the Florida State Supreme Court. The same court that last year, in a unanimous decision mind you, overturned a 5-year-old "fee schedule" capitation system that Republicans under Jeb Bush had imposed, yes, only on worker's lawyers -- a ruling that inevitably led to the introduction of this new fee-cap law, by House Speaker Larry Cretul (R-Ocala) in the last legislative session. Attorney Paul Anderson, representing the Florida Justice Association, says, " Of course there will be a challenge. The bill is unconstitutional."
The essential background here is that big and small business interests alike have lobbied Tallahassee tirelessly for years to get relief from rising premiums on their workers' compensation policies. In 2003, at the height of Republican rule, they got their wish. Sure enough, premiums on those policies dropped over 50% in five years. Know what else dropped? The size of the benefit payments that were granted in compensation appeal cases, and of course, the overall number of appeals filed. One can only imagine what the reduction in filed appeals will be in the years ahead, given the powerful new disincentive that Cretul and his cronies in the legislature have created -- with the governor's blessing.
When Crist signed this new bill into law, he talked about needing to give relief to small businesses. Relief that could and should be given, in a myriad of innovative and progressive ways -- but without rigging workers' comp rules in favor of employers and insurance companies. When he signed the ugly state budget earlier in the week, surrounded by the smiling likes of Rep. Cretul, Crist said of the much-maligned mess he was putting his pen to with pride, "It is what it is." This outrageous new bill, also, "is what it is" -- a calculated attempt by a sitting governor who really wants to be Senator, to demonstrate brazen favoritism for the private sector, the sector that will bear almost the entire weight of financing his latest campaign.
What's so evident and so sad here is the lack of a powerful statewide labor movement in this anti-union, "right to work" state, a counter-balancing force that that could stand up, speak out, and turn up the heat on duplicitous politicians like Crist, who like to talk the talk of siding with working people, only to walk the walk of the privately owned and operated. The fight to get this legislation vetoed instead of signed into law had to be led by attorney's groups -- which allowed the Florida Chamber of Commerce to claim that opposition to the bill was spearheaded by greedy lawyers afraid of losing out on big paydays.
While the governor failed to veto this bill, he has vetoed some others, most prominently the 2% pay cut that was about to hit state employees making over $45,000 a year. He's banking on the symbolic value of saving those folks an average of $17 a week in lost pay, and his campaign will repeatedly point to that veto as evidence of how their guy sticks up for the Middle Class. One can only hope that the Florida Democratic Party reminds voters just as frequently that when it comes to far more at-risk working families and the far larger, more critical sums of money due them in workers' compensation benefits, Governor Crist did what he was told to do by the business community that will fund his effort to bail on the governorship in favor of the U.S. Senate seat.
Submitted for your disapproval, and as a reminder that irony and hypocrisy are sometimes inextricably linked, is the following Crist comment that accompanied his veto of a bill seeking tighter regulation of the auctioneering business -- a comment made the very same day that he signed the workers' comp bill into law: “Government exists to accomplish the will of the people, not to restrict economic or personal liberties.” Right, Charlie. Tell that to the single working mother trying to raise a few kids, put food on the table and make her mortgage payments. Tell her that after she injures her back on the job, perhaps as a nursing home worker who has to lift people out of bed all the time. Tell her that after her non-union employer denies her workers' compensation claim. Tell her that as she lies in bed unable to go to work or to do any other work, as she calls lawyer after lawyer, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to find one willing to take on her appeal case. And then, Governor Crist, when she and her kids are foreclosed out of their home, reassure her, that government does not exist to restrict her economic or personal liberty.