As first reported by Nancy Grover last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed Florida HB 1049, which “would have increased the pay of the state’s judges of compensation claims to equal that of county court judges.” Passed by the legislature to bring the first pay raise Florida workers’ compensation judges would have seen in well over a decade, DeSantis took the political route, caving to the optics of a significant raise during the time of a pandemic.
On the surface the move is understandable, especially since, as DeSantis noted in his veto message, the judges were getting a 3% pay raise as part of a statewide increase for all state employees. If you look a bit deeper at the issue, however, it potentially spells trouble for what has been across the nation a highly respected administrative law system in our industry.
The 3% raise amounts to essentially a cost of living adjustment, and the Florida comp judges have seen a couple of those over the last 15 years or so. But the fact remains that not only is their income far below that of county judges in the state, they are also falling behind similarly positioned judges in other jurisdictions. Most importantly, the stagnant wages at the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims (OJCC) now lag tremendously to those of the attorneys and other legal eagles they must attract to fill key judgeship positions around the state.
Florida comp judges earn $124,564 annually. To many people that sounds like a pretty good salary, well above the median wage in this country. To attorneys in the workers’ comp system, who comprise the most likely pool of viable candidates for judicial job openings, it is not in any way an enticing amount. Applications for openings have dropped dramatically in recent years, and the fact remains that the position is simply not attractive enough with its uncompetitive salary. The plain truth is that attorneys can make much more presenting before the bench than they can sitting on it.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet several Florida OJCC judges over the years. They are smart, dedicated people who are the very definition of the phrase “civil servant.” Clearly, they are not in it for the money. As time drags on and the position fails to keep up with the times, attracting people like that will become increasingly difficult. There have been numerous attempts over recent years to achieve parity in their salary structure, but they could never manage to get the effort through the Florida legislature. This year they finally succeeded, only to be thwarted over nothing more than political posturing.
This point is really driven home when you realize that Florida workers’ comp judges are not supported by taxpayer dollars and are not paid through the general fund. The workers compensation administrative trust fund is funded by assessments on insurance premiums. All system expenses are paid from that fund. Employers pay for these judges through the insurance that they purchase. While that may be semantics to some, the action would not have impacted the state budget at all. And for employers, the old adage “you get what you pay for” may have particularly significant meaning. We should all want an administrative law system staffed by qualified professionals.
My conservative views are no secret, and I have been very pleased to have Ron DeSantis as my Governor. I have been amazed at all he has managed to accomplish in his relatively short time in position. He has been known to buck political convention and follow his principles, which is something I respect. I wish he had chosen to do so in this case. It is unfortunate that Governor DeSantis took the politically expedient route, instead of the right one on this issue.
The ultimate cost to the state may be far higher in the long run.