Consumer eViews
FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 1, Number 25, June 21, 2004

I had the pleasure to speak to a group of students in Tallahassee for Girls State, which is sponsored each year by the American Legion Auxiliary. Girls State has been a state and national institution for more than fifty years, giving high school juniors a chance to examine the workings of our citizen government.

It’s an honor for a student to be chosen to represent her school and community at Girls State. Young women participate in civic training and learn how to be involved in public service.  There may be future county commissioners, school board members, mayors, legislators - even a future governor in this group. Certainly, their energy and enthusiasm will be needed to solve the problems that will be facing Florida in the coming years.    

We’ve got to provide a good quality education to a growing number of children in our schools. We have to promote economic development and investment in our state’s small business community so our student graduates can get good jobs and have a chance for upward mobility. We must also safeguard our fragile environment as our natural resources are so crucial to our state. 

I have been in an elected and leadership role in Florida for almost three decades. When I was these students’ age, if I had been told I’d be a legislator, I would have said never. And when I was a legislator, if I had been told I would be Insurance Commissioner, Education Commissioner and now Chief Financial Officer, I would have said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”  

The key is to have patience and dedication and to build a foundation to cultivate leadership. Be an example to your peers.  Be a hard worker. Be principled. It has never been more important to take pride in our citizenship, discover how government works and get involved in our communities.   

These messages apply to all citizens, not just those at Girls State. Take pride in your community and be an active participant in civic government – “by the people” means you, too.

                                                                                                              -- Tom Gallagher


STATE WRAPS UP WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMPLIANCE SWEEP

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announced the completion of a sweep of construction sites across Florida to verify that employers are complying with state workers’ compensation insurance laws. As part of the statewide effort, investigators with the Department of Financial Service’s Division of Workers’ Compensation made random site visits, ordering dozens of employers to stop work because employees were not properly covered by workers’ compensation insurance.

“Employers who avoid paying workers’ compensation premiums contribute to the rise in workers’ compensation rates and gain an unfair advantage over competitors,” said Gallagher. “A healthy workers’ compensation system is crucial to Florida’s economy, and we will continue to aggressively investigate instances of fraud and abuse.”

During the sweep, investigators issued several dozen Stop Work Orders (SWOs) to construction businesses, including general contractors and sub-contractors, who are in violation of Florida’s workers’ compensation requirements. Under state law, businesses engaged in the construction industry with one or more employees must provide workers’ compensation coverage, which protects workers who are injured or killed on the job.

Under an SWO, a business must immediately cease all business operations. The SWO is lifted once the employer obtains the proper coverage and pays a civil penalty equal to the amount of 1.5 times the workers’ compensation premiums avoided. Employers who violate a Stop Work Order face a penalty of $1,000 per day of violation and may also face criminal charges.

During the 2003 legislative session, lawmakers made several important reforms to the workers’ compensation system in an effort to stem the tide of rising premiums. As part of the reforms, the Division of Workers’ Compensation was granted greater enforcement authority to ensure businesses provide coverage for their employees. Many of the violations uncovered during this week’s sweep fall under the new authority.

To increase competition among businesses operating in Florida, the Legislature in 2003 required that:

  • Out-of-state businesses operating in Florida must pay Florida-approved workers’ compensation rates for coverage. This prevents non-Florida businesses from gaining an unfair advantage over locally-owned businesses.
     
  • Employers who misrepresent the number or classification of their employees be subject to an immediate Stop Work Order. Previously, a criminal investigation was required to take action against the employer.
     
  • Employers wishing to exempt themselves from coverage requirements obtain a new exemption, providing greater tracking ability to state regulators. This measure was aimed at preventing contractors from claiming that employees were subcontractors who were exempt from coverage, thereby avoiding payment of premiums and gaining an unfair advantage over competition.

“Florida workers deserve to be protected in case they are injured on the job,” Gallagher said. “An employee without coverage who is seriously injured or disabled stands to lose not only his livelihood but also the benefits he needs for medical bills and recovery.”

Below are examples of Stop Work Orders issued this week. Statewide, investigators made contact with over 900 businesses, including subcontractors, and issued more than 75 SWOs. Final information, including penalty amounts, will be available after investigators review submitted business records.

In Naples, investigators visited a residential construction site where a concrete subcontractor was using 11 employees. A check of the employer’s policy revealed that only four employees were covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Had one of the non-covered employees suffered an injury, he could have faced no benefits.

On a visit to a beachfront condominium construction site in Panama City, investigators shut down two subcontractors for failing to secure the proper coverage. One of the subcontractors had purchased coverage but with employees classified as janitorial workers. Investigators observed the employees performing construction-related tasks on the third floor of the unfinished condominium.

At a Pasco County residential construction site, investigators discovered a carpentry subcontractor with five employees who had no coverage. Investigators also cited the general contractor for failing to ensure that all subcontractors appropriately insured their employees.
                                   


FLORIDA INSURERS ASKED TO WAIVE GUIDELINES FOR MILITARY PERSONNEL

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announced today that he is urging state regulators to require insurance companies operating in Florida to give special consideration to service personnel who experience lapses in their insurance coverage.

“It is only recently that we began hearing complaints from members of the Armed Forces returning from active duty,” Gallagher said. “But what we heard was very disheartening: service men and women returning to find their auto premiums significantly increased or their applications for new coverage denied.”

Service personnel often discontinue their insurance coverage when they are activated for overseas duty. Under most insurance companies’ underwriting guidelines, a lapse in coverage - whether for homeowners, auto or health - can result in higher premiums, cancelled coverage or denied coverage.

Gallagher has asked the Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) to immediately issue a bulletin to Florida-licensed insurance companies asking them to give special consideration to Florida’s 80,000 active-duty military personnel. Specifically, Gallagher wants insurers to waive their continuity of coverage guidelines when the policyholder is a member of the military who was in good standing when they left for active duty.

Gallagher said he anticipates insurers will be willing to comply now that they better understand the circumstances of military personnel.

Florida currently has 21 active military installations and three joint commands in 13 counties.


DO WE HAVE YOUR TREASURE? 

Millions of dollars in cash deposits, plus all kinds of valuables and collectibles from abandoned safe deposit boxes, are turned in to the Florida Department of Financial Services’ Bureau of Unclaimed Property each year.   

By law, holders of unclaimed property, such as banks, credit unions, utilities, insurance companies and employers, are required to forward their unclaimed holdings to the state for safekeeping.  The state, in turn, is required to keep the property indefinitely and attempt to locate its owners or their heirs so the property can be returned to them.  It’s a classic example of government taking action to protect the interests of its citizens. 

The vast majority of Florida’s unclaimed property is composed of cash accounts. When turned over to the department, the funds are deposited into Florida’s State School Trust Fund that benefits the state’s public schools.   

Citizens can call, write or log on to the FLDFS website to see if funds are being held for them.

There is no statute of limitations on this property; it will always be available to be claimed by the owners or their heirs. The department attempts to locate owners using various methods.  The most well known is the annual publication of names in newspapers throughout Florida.  The department also locates owners using credit bureau searches, driver license searches, radio and television programs, and by participating in home shows, state fairs, and other community events.  Additionally, the Bureau of Unclaimed Property has approximately 3.4 million records on a searchable database, accessible from the Department’s Unclaimed Property Web site - Florida Unclaimed Property . The toll-free telephone number - 1-88-VALUABLE or 1-888-258-2253 - is available for citizens in Florida to contact the department.  Callers outside Florida can reach the Bureau of Unclaimed Property at (850) 410-9253. 

A small percentage of the unclaimed property gets a lot of attention—items left behind in safe deposit boxes. Valuables such as gold doubloons, silver ingots, diamond jewelry, fine watches, rare coins and even autographed baseballs have helped to earn the program’s “Great Florida Treasure Hunt” nickname.  And when our efforts to locate the owners fail, the Bureau holds auctions to convert the items into cash, which is then held indefinitely for the owners or heirs to claim.   

The Department of Financial Services is holding its next Unclaimed Property Auction on July 31, 2004, at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza near the Miami International Airport. Fisher Auction Company will conduct the auction, with catalogued items worth more than $500,000 in estimated minimum required bids. Friday, July 30, 2004, will be Preview Day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. with a $250 refundable cash deposit and a valid driver license required for entry.  

The state is presently holding more than $1 billion in unclaimed property and that figure is rising steadily.  Although Florida keeps setting records in claim payouts—$88 million has been returned to owners this year—the money comes in at a faster rate than it goes out.   

Find out if you have any lost treasure by visiting our website at www.FLtreasurehunt.org or call us toll-free at 1-88-VALUABLE
(1-888-258-2253).   
                                   


Florida Department of Financial Services'
Consumer Services HelpLine
(800)342-2762.