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Tuesday, May 12, 2015 03:53 pm

Workers’ comp could see changes

Illinois rates improved after last reforms, but not fast enough for businesses

 Gov. Bruce Rauner wants state lawmakers to reform workers’ compensation, but the jury is still out on the last attempt at reform.

            The Illinois General Assembly last passed workers’ compensation reforms in 2011, but the effects of that reform package seem to be still developing.

The 2011 reforms allowed employers to choose doctors to evaluate worker injuries, lowered a cap on benefits paid for losing the use of a hand and prevented workers from collecting due to an injury sustained while intoxicated.

            As of 2014, Illinois has the seventh-highest workers’ compensation premiums in the country. That’s according to the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, which ranks states on their workers’ compensation costs.

            The statistics seem to suggest that the workers’ compensation reform passed in 2011 may be working, albeit slowly. In 2009, Illinois was ranked last among all states for workers’ compensation rates, but in 2012, after the last batch of reforms was passed, Illinois had the fourth-highest rates. In 2014, Illinois was seventh. Workers’ compensation costs in Illinois went down 12.7 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to Oregon’s numbers.

There are some problems with Oregon’s numbers, though – largely because of the complexities of workers’ compensation. For example, workers in different industries are exposed to different levels of risks, so different types of companies have different rates, which makes analysis across industries more difficult. Also, Oregon’s numbers are based on Oregon’s economy, which is about a third the size of Illinois. Still, the information does show a reduction in Illinois’ overall rates. It is also useful to gauge Illinois as compared to other states.

            Changing the state’s workers’ compensation laws to make Illinois more attractive to businesses has been a priority for the Rauner administration.

“To become more competitive, we must look to the structural impediments to our economic growth,” Rauner said during his first State of the State Address. “Our workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and liability costs all rank among the worst in America.”

            One of the proposals so far involves changing the burden of proof so that workers would have to establish that at least half of the injury in question happened in the workplace. Under the current law, any injury that happens on the job is considered a workplace injury, regardless of how much the workplace actually contributed to the injury.

“We do believe that, from the governor’s perspective as well as ours, that the real solution to workers’ compensation reform is addressing whether or not the injury actually occurred in the workplace,” said Jay Shattuck, a lobbyist for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

Workers’ compensation was the subject of a House Committee of the Whole meeting called last week by House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat from Chicago. The rarely-used mechanism turns the entire Illinois House into one big committee. Many of the people who testified at the committee were people who have received benefits from workers’ compensation.

            Republicans in the committee repeatedly pointed out that the reforms they had been seeking would not reduce benefits for any of the people who testified at the committee.

            Rep. Michael Unes, R–East Peoria, complained that the committee was more about putting on a show than discussing good policy. He joined several other Republicans in calling for a second Committee of the Whole meeting to hear from more Illinois businesses.

“It appears like there’s maybe some in this room that believe that it’s more important to have good theater than good policy,” Unes said. “We can have discussions that are more on policy and less about theater.”

State Senator Dale Righter, R–Matoon, introduced a bill, SB 846, which would change the causation standard for workers’ compensation. The Senate would have to vote on it this week to meet a legislative deadline.

Contact Alan Kozeluh at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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