Myths of the Workers' Compensation System Rebuked

Below is the text of a Letter to the Editor written by Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President Todd A. Smith. This Letter appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, April 29, 2011. It was written in response to a Tribune editorial on workers' compensation, the text of which can be found here.

Workers’ Rights Chicago Tribune, April 29, 2011


In response to your April 11 editorial "A midnight promise," here's a promise you appear now to encourage be broken: A hundred years ago, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire caused the death of 146 people. While trying to escape, many found exit doors locked, and they jumped to their deaths. The "Great Trade Off" evolved in part out of this tragedy — an agreement for workers and industry. The employer agreed to pay medical bills, lost wages and related compensation in a workers compensation system while workers gave up the right to pursue a case in court.


Over the last few months, we've heard various proposals regarding the Illinois' workers' compensation system. We've heard stories about alleged abuses at the Menard Correctional Center.


Any abuse of the system — by either employers or employees — should not be tolerated and should be investigated.


But abuse should not be the cause for diminishing the rights of those with completely legitimate claims.


Most of the proposed "reforms" come at the expense of injured workers, and provide questionable relief.


The insurance expense would simply be transferred from workers' compensation to increased health insurance premiums.


Your editorial argued that workers aren't required to prove their injury occurred at work.


A simple examination of existing law would show you that the law already requires precisely that.


One's injury, under the law, must occur "in the course of employment."


You also suggested workers injured due to intoxication were entitled to recover.


Wrong again.


The current law already allows a denial of benefits in cases where intoxication of an employee is the cause of the accident.


You say Illinois chases jobs to other states by "whacking employers" with high costs for workers' compensation. It's not Illinois.


The number of workers' compensation claims in Illinois has dropped from approximately 80,000 to 50,000 in the last decade.


Yet premiums continue to climb. If there are problems of being "whacked" for the business community, and the premiums they pay for coverage, maybe a closer look at the insurance industry and its lack of regulation is needed.


We have urged legislators to focus on insurance reform, to reject these anti-worker proposals and to continue to protect the rights of hard-working Illinois citizens.


We believe in promises too.


— Todd A. Smith, president, Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, Chicago

__________________________________________________________________________________

Mr. Smith authored a similar op-ed piece for the Belleville News Democrat. This newspaper has been the lead forum for business interests clamoring for the alleged "reform" of the workers' compensation system.


Guest view: Workers deserve continued full protection if hurt on the job

Belleville News Democrat, Sunday, May 1, 2011


On Saturday, November 13, 1909, nearly 500 men and boys as young as 11-years-old were working in a Cherry, Illinois, mine. An accidental fire ignited, spreading to the timbers that supported the mine and the fan that brought fresh air in to the immigrant workers. Two shafts were closed to smother the fire, creating “black damp,” a suffocating mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Despite their heroic attempts, twelve rescuers were among the 259 who were burned to death on that day when cage operators misunderstood the miners’ signals to bring them to the surface.


From the tragedy of the Cherry Mine Disaster, the Illinois legislature established stronger mine safety regulations to protect the workers - workers who risk their lives in dangerous working conditions. Then in 1911 Illinois passed a separate law, which would later develop into the Illinois Workmen’s Compensation Act.


Recently, the rights of Illinois injured workers’ have become a political football. We’ve heard stories about alleged abuses at the Menard Correctional Center. Any abuse of the system - by either employers or employees - should not be tolerated. But abuse should not be the cause for diminishing the rights of those with completely legitimate claims.


Your recent commentary suggested reforms without the so called “causation” reform would be no reform at all. Let’s be clear. The law already requires, and has for a long time, that ones injury must occur “in the course of employment.” Benefits are awarded only when the employee is doing his or her job and the injury occurs related to that activity. We’ve also heard claims that “drunk or high” workers are currently entitled to workers compensation. Wrong again. The current law already allows a denial of benefits in cases where intoxication of an employee is the cause of the accident.


You also declared recently that what amounts to a dramatic reduction in injured workers’ rights are the single most important thing to be done to get job growth. This is said without an ounce of data to support it. Did you ever consider that ensuring regular hard working people’s rights to quality care and appropriate income support when injured on the job actually benefits Illinois business as well? It’s a win-win. Quality workers are properly cared for, and their families supported where income is lost when an injury has occurred during the course of their employment.


The truth is businesses are positive about Illinois and doing well here also. Just this year Ford Motor Company made a long-term commitment to Illinois. American Aluminum Extrusion Co., currently based in Beloit, WI, is making a new home in Illinois. At the same time, insurance costs are not hurting the bottom line of corporations like McDonalds, whose net income topped $4.95 billion in 2010. Kraft Foods netted $4.11 billion. And Caterpillar, $2.70 billion. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co reported a net income of $1.8 billion.


In a state of 12 million people, the number of workers’ compensation claims have dropped from approximately 80,000 to 50,000 in the last decade. Yet premiums are continuing to climb. If there are problems for the business community, and the premiums they pay for coverage, maybe a closer look at the insurance industry and its lack of regulation is needed. We have urged legislators to focus on insurance reform.


Neighboring states have altered their workers’ compensation systems at the expense of injured workers, only to further pad the profits of corporate America. We urge Illinois lawmakers to reject these anti-worker proposals and continue to protect the rights of those injured.

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