Illinois Chamber: Rigid status-quo mindset impedes workers' comp reform
Illinois' greatest obstacle to workers' compensation reform are those most interested in maintaining the status quo, Illinois Chamber of Commerce Employment Law Council Executive Director Jay Shattuck said.
"Maintaining the status quo means the continued loss of manufacturing jobs and the migration of economic investment out of the state," Shattuck said. "Maintaining the status quo also means that legitimately injured workers continue to face a system that bogs down their ability to obtain benefits in a timely manner."
Illinois is tied for eighth place with Oklahoma in workers' compensation premium rates, according to figures released by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services. That is an improvement over 2014, when Illinois ranked seventh. California remains in first place in the rankings, the same place it held in 2014, followed by New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Alaska and Delaware. Indiana ranks 50th this year, the same position that state held in 2014.
"Illinois improved slightly, relative to other states across the country," Shattuck said. "The Illinois Chamber’s objective is to return the Illinois workers' compensation cost structure to the middle of the road. Our Oregon ranking in 2004 was 23rd. We can be more competitive for high-paying jobs with good benefits if we could return just to the middle of the state rankings."
Shattuck said the Illinois Chamber of Commerce has long maintained a policy that recommends doing just that.
"Our proposals do not seek to reduce benefits for workers legitimately injured in the workplace," Shattuck said. "We firmly believe that employers should not be responsible for injuries that were caused or occurred outside the workplace."
The news about workers' compensation in Illinois has not been universally bad. In April, a report issued by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit Workers' Compensation Research Institute found that Illinois has substantially improved its position compared with other states since changes were enacted under former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011. In particular, the report found that the total medical and indemnity costs per claim dropped in 2015.
Gov. Bruce Rauner also made workers' compensation reform part of his "Turnaround Illinois" agenda.
By May 2015, workers' compensation reform bills that supported Rauner's agenda were filed in the state House of Representatives and Senate. HB 4223, filed by state Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), would have required that an injured worker prove that an accidental injury arising during the course of employment is the major contributing cause of the medical condition or injury for which compensation is sought. That bill had 10 additional sponsors sign on in less than a month after it was filed.
In the state Senate, workers' compensation reform was introduced by state Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) as an amendment to SB 994. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) also introduced workers' compensation reform legislation as amendments to HB 1287. At least one lawmaker thinks a workers' compensation compromise could help unlock the state's budget impasse.
None of that proposed legislation got very far as Rauner encountered push-back from Springfield Democrats over his proposed workers' compensation reforms, which soon were mired in budget talks. Workers' compensation reform was not addressed at all in the stopgap budget that temporarily is keeping the state going, and it isn't clear whether those reforms will be taken up again following the general election in November.
With so little action on workers' compensation reform in the General Assembly, other groups, including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, continued to weigh in with observations and proposals. Last summer, the conservative Illinois Policy Institute issued its report, "A Workers' Compensation system for the 21st Century," which said the problem with workers' compensation in Illinois is that the system is unwilling to modernize. That report also offered strong support for competitive options that are more dynamic and flexible. In July, the Illinois Policy Institute issued an article, "Fixing Illinois' Outdated Workers' Compensation System," which criticized the system for not evolving to meet the modern workplace, and instead catering to special interests not related to the best interests of employers and employees.
"The system needs to be reformed," the Illinois Policy Institute article said. "Illinois policymakers should allow workers and employers to opt out of the state-run workers’ compensation system and to craft their own agreements around their particular circumstances -- rather than forcing all workers and employers to adhere to rigid regulations that often no longer serve their purpose."
Shattuck said he views the post-election legislative session in Springfield with optimism.
"I remain optimistic that legislators will come together to fix the state’s budget problems," Shattuck said. "Fixing the budget must include workers’ compensation reform to enhance job growth and drive more tax dollars to allow the state of Illinois to support the programs that aid our most needy citizens. Without strong economic growth, Illinois cannot afford to pay for its extensive social programs."