Workers' comp talks hit another logjam


SPRINGFIELD -- Workers’ compensation reform negotiations were on the rocks again Monday in the Illinois General Assembly, and a key senator said lawmakers will move Wednesday to abolish the system if the talks are not resurrected.

“I think it’s true to say that the effort has derailed again,” Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley said. “I don’t think it’s over.”

Whitley said he sees three possibilities with only eight days left in the spring legislative session: the legislature does nothing; the parties involved resume talks; or House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, calls for a vote a bill that would do away with Illinois’ current system of compensating people for on-the-job injuries.

But Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, the Senate’s lead negotiator on workers’ compensation reform, said there are only two options: A bill agreed to by all the various interest groups, or abolition of the system.

‘Point of exhaustion’

“Certainly, for Representative Bradley and myself, we’re reaching a point of exhaustion,” Raoul said, referring to Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, the House’s main negotiator on the issue. “There’s a high possibility that the pathway to reform might be to repeal the act. Sometimes it’s better to look at things with a blank sheet of paper. If we rebuild the act, it’s not as if injured workers won’t have access to a forum to bring their complaints.”

In Illinois’ current system, injured workers generally give up the right to sue their employers. Disputes are decided by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission. Benefits are paid from a fund to which employers contribute. Employers are seeking changes in the state’s workers’ comp law that would reduce their costs.

Raoul said Bradley’s House Bill 1032, which would abolish that system and leave decisions on individual workers’ compensation cases up to the courts, will be called in the House on Wednesday unless there is an agreement.

“We’re not going to leave here without doing something,” Raoul said.

Bradley could not be reached Monday evening.

Business against abolition

Whitley said the state’s business interests oppose abolition.

“The speaker has continued to make references to the nuclear option of blowing up the commission,” Whitley said. “That’s obviously something nobody wants.”

There are differing views about the cause of the legislative logjam.

Whitley said the discussions fell apart when lawmakers tried to reinstitute the “agreed bill process,” in which all parties involved – in this case, businesses, trial lawyers, labor and the medical community – come to agreement on reforms to be adopted by the legislature.

“(The groups) were put back together in a room together and the legislators proposed a solution … and none of the parties agreed that was the thing to do,” Whitley said. “The agreed bill process is actually an agreed veto process. If any one party disagrees with the bill, it gets derailed.”

Raoul seemed to indicate that one business in particular has been particularly nettlesome, but declined to say whom.

“No single employer’s hangup should stand in the way of all the other employers who justly deserve to have their costs reduced,” Raoul said.

Reform still possible

Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, declined to characterize the process as having been derailed.

“With any negotiation, you have high points and low points,” Denzler said. “Talks are still ongoing. As we speak (Monday evening) there is a group meeting to discuss workers’ compensation.”

“I think it (reform) is possible to happen by the end of the session,” Denzler said.

Raoul agreed, but with a major caveat.

“If we can’t do it by agreement by all parties, then we’ll do it by the repeal of the act. Maybe people at that point will be inspired to discuss a workers compensation act,” he said.

“There’s time for people to come together and agree. But not a whole lot.”

Andy Brownfield can be reached at (217) 782-3095. Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.