CHESTER — At the Menard Correctional Center, one in every 10 guards has been awarded a recent taxpayer-paid settlement for repetitive trauma they say was caused by locking and unlocking cells.
And their boss, warden David Rednour, also has gotten a taxpayer-paid award -- $75,678 -- that he received in June when he was promoted to the top job at the maximum security lockup.
But the 35-year-old Rednour got the tax-free money not for injuries he received as a state worker but for repetitive trauma he claimed occurred during an earlier career as a police officer before his hiring by the state in 2006, said his attorney, Thomas Rich of Fairview Heights. Rednour also received $9,196 paid time off last year to recuperate from corrective surgery.
Rich, who received a fee of 15 percent of the total, or $11,351, cited a "last employer" clause in the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act that he said allows a state employee to be compensated for an accumulated injury, such as repetitive trauma, that has its roots in an earlier job with another employer.
Rich said he could not remember what Rednour specifically stated about his former police duties that caused injuries to show up on his $80,450 per year prison warden job. In Illinois, where state government is self-insured, compensation settlements are paid directly from the general revenue fund.
According to Illinois Department of Corrections regulations, Rednour, who could not be reached for comment, is not allowed to comment directly to the media. Department spokeswoman Sharyn Elman said that a workers' compensation case is a "personnel issue" within her department and this policy prevented her from answering any questions about any compensation matter.
But Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission records are open to the public. They show that claims filed by about 60 Menard corrections officers plus several other prison employees since 2007 have generated about $1.75 million in settlements. In all of 60 cases involving guards, repetitive trauma from locking and unlocking cells was the claimed injury and surgery, including carpal tunnel syndrome procedures, was common.
The public records also showed that like Rednour, officials at the maximum security lockup who would not be expected to be operating a tier of cells have also applied for "repetitive trauma" injury awards or have already received them. They include an assistant warden who retired last year, a food service supervisor, a social worker and a nurse. Documents stating what type of activity caused their injuries were not immediately available.
Records also show that Illinois' two other large maximum security prisons, Pontiac and Stateville, where some cells are controlled electrically, don't show claims for repetitive trauma injuries, and the overall number of compensation claims are a fraction of Menard's.
Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, is concerned about the number of claims at Menard.
"The abuses and the fraud in the workers' compensation system in Illinois have gotten out of control and are costing the taxpayers more than they ever will know," McCarter said. "We have to take a strong stand against this while helping out workers who are legitimately hurt on the job. The fraud and the abuse has to go. It's driving business out of the state."
Cara Smith, chief spokeswoman and a deputy attorney general for the Illinois Attorney General's office, said her office is responsible for representing the state in matters involving claims.
As for the multiple claims by Menard guards and staff, Smith said: "These kind of alarm questions fall squarely within the Workers' Compensation Commission and the DOC. Certainly the DOC knows about these claims. ... The commission is uniquely situated to cover red flag issues."
Mitch Weisz, chairman of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, was among dozens of state officials who attended a public meeting in Mount Vernon on Thursday arranged by the Illinois House to identify problems in the workers' compensation program at a time when the entire state is facing one of the worst budget crises in history. Another session sponsored by the Senate was held a few days earlier in Chicago.
He referred to the recent repetitive trauma claims by Menard guards and staff as a "cluster."
In a written response to the News-Democrat, Weisz stated: "At the commission we are looking for ways to identify clusters of claims. With that information we hope to suggest that employers evaluate ways to improve safety. ... In cases where the situation seems to arise from nefarious causes, we want to encourage that they be reported to the Department of Insurance Fraud Unit."
A spokesman for the fraud unit said Friday that he could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation of the Menard compensation claims is under way.
Weisz also said that of particular concern not only for the commission but for injured workers is the common state practice of not paying or delaying payment of medical bills, including for prescription medicine.
State law allows a state arbitrator to assess penalties that are split between a claimant and his attorney when medical bills are not paid within 60 days.
Rich, who specializes in compensation claims, said Saturday that claimants were in his office telling him that pharmacies would not continue medication because the state wouldn't pay them. A person who receives a compensation claim is ultimately held liable for medical bills.
"I have clients whose credit ratings have gone down the toilet," because the state is late or fails to pay, Rich said.
But attorneys for the Illinois Attorney General, who represent the state in compensation matters, have argued that because of declining revenue, the government can't pay all medical bills on time.
Barry Wesley, an assistant attorney general who routinely represents the state in workers' compensation claim cases, argued in October 2009 before arbitrator John Dibble that the state was out of cash for medical fees.
"The respondent admits this places a burden upon the medical providers and the injured worker, but the state cannot pay bills with money that it does not have," Wesley said during the hearing.
Dibble, who had waited six months to assess a penalty instead of the minimum 60 days, ordered the state not only to pay $171,801 in unpaid medical bills for Sean Starkweather, a Menard correctional officer, but also an additional penalty of $84,062 that included $33,624 to his attorney Rich.
Rich said that he withdraws requests for penalties in "90 percent of cases" even after they are filed if the state pays the bills although the penalty in the Starkweather case is pending.