The Florida Supreme Court heard a case Thursday questioning current limits on workers compensation. At issue is a ruling at the District Court level addressing a potential gap between temporary and permanent disability coverage.
Bradley Westphal was a firefighter in St. Petersburg, and he injured his back while fighting a fire in 2009. The injury left Westphal in a category known as "temporary total disability." This means he was unable to work for the moment, but his doctors expected him to be able to work again at some point.
The problem for Westphal is this form of coverage is only available for 104 weeks, but he did not fully recover from his surgeries within that two year timeframe. Under Florida’s current workers' compensation law, a person needs to have reached what’s known as "maximum medical improvement," or MMI, before determining whether or not they can qualify for permanent disability. Because Westphal was still getting better, he wasn’t allowed to file, and lost a chunk of his disability compensation. At the case’s last stop, the District Court of Appeals attempted to remove the coverage gap Westphal fell into by determining people can apply for permanent disability when their temporary disability runs out. Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor says this finding undermines distinctions in the current system.
“The problem with the new interpretation is it affords permanent disability benefits to people who do not have permanent disabilities,” Winsor says.
This is because some people given permanent disability coverage might later recover and re-enter the labor force.
Kimberly Proano, representing the City of St. Petersburg says there are other benefits available in the gap.
“In usual cases, if there is 104 weeks exhaustion of the temporary benefits, but they’re not at maximum medical improvement, they can get impairment benefits based on whatever the rating the doctor gives them,” Proano says.
But Sicking says these benefits are inadequate.
“Impairment benefits are miniscule,” Sicking says. “It’s taking the comp. rate of $765 and reducing it by 25 percent. So he went from $765 to $422, that’s the math.”
And impairment benefits have limits, too. They are calculated at a rate of three weeks for each percentage point of impairment, which would give Westphal 36 weeks of additional support.
But there’s one thing both parties to the case agree on: the District Court’s most recent interpretation is wrong.
Proano argues the district court overstepped its bounds by determining two years of temporary disability is the statutory equivalent of maximum medical improvement. This finding allows people to apply for permanent disability if they are still unable to work when they reach the limit of their temporary coverage.
Sicking, on the other hand, argues the two year limit itself is unconstitutional, and the workers' compensation law as a whole does not adequately serve injured workers.