Workers’ Compensation Permanent Total Disability (PTD) – The Shifting Standard

Permanent Total Disability (PTD) is the only periodic (bi-weekly) monetary payment available to injured workers after maximum medical improvement (MMI) is reached. The standard for qualifying for PTD benefits has changed numerous times over the years.

When I began handling workers’ compensation cases, in 1987, to qualify for PTD benefits an injured worker had to have a listed injury such as total blindness, amputation of an arm, or a severe brain or closed head injury, or establish that he or she was unable to perform light duty work uninterruptedly. (Light duty is commonly recognized as: (1) no lifting > 20 lbs.; (2) frequent (1/3 to 2/3 of the time) lifting or carrying objects up to 10 lbs.; (3) standing 6 out of 8 hours per day; and (4) stand and use arms and hands.)

This standard applied until 1994, when the Florida Legislature, in a Special Session convened by Governor Lawton Chiles, replaced the light duty standard with a formula tied into the Social Security Disability (SSD) standard. The Legislature believed that this formula would make it more difficult for injured workers to qualify for workers’ compensation PTD benefits. In practice, however, just as many if not more injured workers qualified for PTD under this standard.

This did not sit well with Governor Jeb Bush and his corporate constituents, so in 2002, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature changed the standard again. The SSD formula was replaced with the requirement that injured workers must show they are unable to engage in at least part-time sedentary employment within a 50-mile radius of the employee’s residence. (Sedentary duty is commonly recognized as: (1) no lifting > 10 lbs. at a time; (2) occasional (1/3 of time) lifting or carrying small articles like docket files, ledgers and small tools; (3) sit 6 hours during 8 hour day and stand and/or walk the remaining 2 hours; and (4) good manual dexterity in both hands.) When coupled with the Legislature’s companion 2002 changes curtailing the amount of attorneys’ fees an injured workers lawyer was allowed to receive, the change dramatically reduced the number of individuals who qualified for PTD benefits.

The standard proved so onerous, that the law was revisited a few years later. The outcome of the Legislature’s decision to reconsider resulted in our current law, which provides as follows: “[I]n order to obtain permanent total disability benefits, the employee must establish that he or she is not able to engage in at least sedentary employment, within a 50-mile radius of the employee’s residence, due to his or her physical limitation.” Section 440.15 Florida Statutes (2009).

The difference between the two standards is that the current law does not contain the term “part-time.” The difference has proven significant. The difference between a part-time and a full-time job is around 20 hours a week. For someone with severely limiting injuries, this can be a monumental difference.

Even though the current PTD standard is more worker-friendly than it was under the Jeb Bush regime, it still remains extremely difficult to qualify for PTD. Only a small percentage of injured workers are given permanent restrictions by their treating doctors – who are authorized and paid by the employers and their insurance companies – that fall within the sedentary duty criterion. More often, even those with serious permanent injuries are placed by their doctors in the less limited light duty category.

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Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.