Florida Comp Fund Runs Out of Money

A Florida fund that pays for retraining injured workers has run out of money following significant jumps in the number of workers seeking retraining and in the cost of training.

A Florida fund that pays for retraining injured workers has run out of money, following significant jumps in the number of workers seeking retraining and in the costs for training, reports the Miami Herald.

The number of injured workers seeking retraining increased nearly 13 percent during the current fiscal year, while the cost of training them rose nearly 20 percent. Also, the number of injured workers in Florida is on the rise according to the most recent figures available, up 1 percent to 288,200.

The retraining program is funded by contributions from the state''s workers compensation insurance carriers. A budget increase of $100,000 from the previous year''s budget of $2.8 million was not enough to cover costs and pay for training an additional 490 injured employees seeking services. The program is bankrupt until the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

The program was designed to help mostly blue-collar workers whose on-the-job injuries make them unable to return to their former jobs. They receive retraining in jobs - such as those dealing with computers - that require less physical activity.

The Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security, which administers the portion of the workers'' compensation trust fund that pays for retraining, began referring some injured workers to the Department of Education''s vocational rehabilitation program. That program, however, is in danger of losing its funding due to mismanagement. Plus, not all workers who are eligible for retraining under the Department of Labor''s program are eligible for Department of Education programs.

Injured workers say they must wait as long as six months to participate in retraining programs, with many being told to come back in July when more money is available. This causes a boomerang effect, since state law dictates they are not eligible for certain benefits if they are not participating in a training or education program.

"It''s almost the last straw," said Mark L. Zientz, a Miami lawyer representing injured workers. "Every time a client of mine goes down to vocational rehabilitation and is given orientation, they are then told to call back. They''re told, `We don''t have any money now.''"

Bethany Kemp, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Employment Security, said that the average cost of retraining an injured worker has increased from $3,172 in fiscal year 2001 to $3,963 in fiscal year 2002.

That''s why the department finds itself in a fiscal bind, said Kemp. "There are factors that are beyond our control. We can''t foresee every eventuality," she added.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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