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Worker's compensation rewrite clears committee

People who lose income from two jobs when they get hurt at work would be able to recover wages from both jobs under a worker's compensation rewrite that cleared a House subcommittee Wednesday.

That had been the law before 1990, but a worker's compensation reform act prohibited workers from recovering wages from a second job, even if their injury left them unable to work at all.

The House Worker's Compensation Subcommittee approved the bill 9-1 after committee members slogged through 149 amendments. The proposal still must pass the full Commerce Committee and clear Senate committees before going to a floor vote in the respective chambers.

Among other things, the law also allows employers to require mandatory drug testing to cut down on work place injuries even when there's no cause to suspect drug or alcohol use. Labor unions oppose that measure.

State law requires all employers with four or more workers to buy worker's compensation insurance to provide medical care, rehabilitation and wage loss benefits to workers who get hurt on the job. Spiraling worker's compensation premiums in the 1980s caused the Legislature to take a broad look at Florida's laws. A 1990 reform package rolled back premiums by 25 percent and froze them until Jan. 1, 1992. At that time, rates went up 24.9 percent.

As usual, the annual workup of the worker's compensation bill attracted several special interests: insurance companies, business associations, labor unions, doctors, rehabilitation clinics, chiropractors, lawyers for people seeking benefits, lawyers for insurers denying benefits. All have a stake in the multibillion dollar worker's compensation merry-go-round.

"Everybody's got their head in the trough and nobody will lift their head up long enough to see what's working for fear somebody else will get another bite," said Rep. R. Z. "Sandy" Safley, R-Clearwater.

Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries, the state's biggest business lobby, compared the 180-page bill to a junk car rolling down the road, dropping a bumper here, a headlight there, a piston over yonder.

No one thinks this junker is done yet.

One of the biggest fights involves a potential 4 percent assessment against group self-insurance funds. There are 22 such funds in Florida regulated by the Department of Labor and two big ones regulated by the insurance commissioner with total premiums of about $1.1-billion a year.

Labor Secretary Frank Scruggs proposes putting all of them in a Guaranty Association that would protect workers from any insurer that goes belly up. Opponents of the idea say none of the self-insurance funds has failed in the past 30 years.

"The fact that we have not had a failed fund is hardly a reason for us not to take precautions against the eventuality," said Commerce Committee chairman Art Simon, D-Miami. He emphasized that the self-insurance funds would not be assessed unless the need arose to bail out an insolvent insurer.

Associated Industries and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which operate two of the biggest self-insurance funds, won a victory in an amendment that would subject the bailout only to claims from the day of enactment, not for claims already existing. But the business lobbies lost in an attempt to cap the assessment at 1 percent.

The Florida Homebuilders Association, which also operates a worker's compensation fund, was so concerned about the worker's compensation bill that a group of association members visiting for the day sought help from the top Democratic leaders.

The home builders' chief lobbyist, Richard Gentry, summoned House Rules Chairman Bo Johnson, D-Milton, out of the House chamber during a debate and asked for his help in killing sections. Johnson, due to take over as House speaker in November, told the home builders that worker's compensation was his top business issue.