Marilyn Nevarez says she developed bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome from her typing and data entry job at Delray Beach-based Office Depot.
But another sort of pain started when her workers' compensation claim was denied. Seven attorneys turned her away because her case would bring too small of a legal fee.
''It doesn't seem fair,'' the 44-year-old Lake Worth resident says of Florida's workers' comp system.
And she's not alone. Nevarez's case is one of thousands in which hurt employees feel they have been shut out of the legal system since the legislature eliminated hourly fees for plaintiff attorneys as part of a 2003 overhaul of the workers' comp system, say attorneys who represent injured workers.
To be sure, the major reform did fix a system that was rife with abuse and whose sky-high rates were crippling some small businesses and driving up consumer costs. Workers' comp rates in Florida, at times the highest in the nation, have come down more than 50 percent.
But the fact that workers' comp judges now must follow a lower, set fee schedule for trial attorneys when they prevail -- 10 percent to 20 percent of the award -- has made it tougher for workers to dispute their claim's compensation.
NOT WORTH IT
Jupiter attorney Louis Pfeffer said he dropped Nevarez's case, despite the fact he that he believes her injury is real, because the approximate 75 hours he would put in to obtain a likely $20,000 to $25,0000 award for her would result in only a $2,500 to $3,000 fee for him. Before the reform, he could have expected to earn around $30,000, he said.
The legislature ''has in essence taken away an injured worker's rights to an attorney,'' he said.
Nevarez said that has left her to challenge Office Depot and the company that handles its claims, Sedgwick Claims Management Services, on her own.
''I am still in pain,'' she said, more than 2 ½ years after the day in April 2005 she first noticed intermittent tingling and pain in both wrists.
A doctor she was ordered to see confirmed the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome in June 2005 and said she needed surgery on both hands. But the doctor didn't connect the injury to her job -- in effect, denying her claim for lost wages and medical costs -- and released Nevarez back to full work duty a week after the exam.
Nevarez said her superiors at Office Depot told her she would be fired if she did not return to work.
Nevarez said she complied, despite continuing pain, working until June 2007, when Office Depot outsourced her job and those of other workers.
Nevarez, who doesn't have health insurance, said her hands still hurt, but she has no money for an operation. Instead she spends her time looking for another job, she said. Her husband is a carpenter, and the downturn in construction has meant that they are having difficulty making ends meet.
Meanwhile, her search for a lawyer hasn't helped. ''You go from attorney to attorney, and they say they can't do anything for you,'' she said. ``It's very frustrating.''