Business groups and injured employees weighed in Tuesday as Illinois lawmakers began debating whether to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation insurance program to make it more affordable for employers.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan called a rare meeting of the Illinois House to hear testimony on the issue, which Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has called one of his top legislative priorities.
Rauner has said Illinois’ costs are among the highest in the nation, and that cutting them will help lure companies from other states and create jobs. But Madigan and other Democrats say Rauner’s proposals would hurt working people and their families.
Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, served as chairman of the committee. Hoffman said he and other Democrats are in support of measures that would root out fraud and abuse in the system, “but this side of the aisle will not join other states in a race to the bottom.”
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Witnesses at the hearing included several people who suffered on-the-job injuries.
“They all worked hard, they sacrificed, they played by the rules,” Hoffman said. “They had no desire to interact with the workers’ compensation system, yet they were forced to do so.”
For several hours Tuesday, workers who were hurt on the job told legislators how their injuries and loss of income had turned their lives upside down. Some had lost their homes or their retirement and are permanently disabled.
John Coffell, who was hurt on the job in Oklahoma, had to go on food stamps and send his three kids to live with relatives because Oklahoma had cut workers’ compensation benefits.
“There are people just like me here in Illinois that will pay the price if you choose to go down the same path that my state did,” Coffell said.
Republicans criticized the hearing as unbalanced, saying there wasn’t enough input from the business community. They also said they weren’t even proposing some of the changes Democrats were criticizing, such as cutting the amount of benefits workers with legitimate workplace injuries receive.
Business leaders and Republicans say they want to focus instead on reducing fraud, cutting the fees paid to some medical providers and compensating workers only if an on-the-job accident is more than 50 percent responsible for the injury.
Illinois overhauled its workers’ compensation insurance system in 2011. But the state currently ranks seventh nationwide for the highest cost per $100 of salary, according to the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services.
“In order to keep Illinois businesses in Illinois, we need to make changes and reduce the workers’ compensation rates employers pay,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, who spoke at a news conference held by business groups prior to the hearing.
Tuesday’s hearing comes as lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature are meeting behind closed doors in bipartisan working groups to try to forge compromise with Rauner on his pro-business agenda and next year’s state budget.
Democrats want the governor to consider raising taxes to help balance the budget, but Rauner has said he will only consider doing so if the Legislature approves some of his priorities, such as workers’ compensation.
Democratic Rep. Jay Hoffman, who chaired Tuesday’s hearing, made clear that partisan differences remain.
“Everyone wants to make Illinois as competitive as possible,” Hoffman said. “We support rooting out fraud and corruption. But this side of the aisle will not join other states in a race to the bottom.”