3-14-2011; Can Illinois Government Workers Rein In Illinois Government Workers—Can Correcting Government Workers’ Comp Mismanagement Be a Litmus Test?

We heard a fascinating speech by Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel in which he posited the theory government workers should be more efficient or at least as efficient as private workers providing the same services to taxpayers at competitive cost. Without meaning to discourage a guy who may become a great city official, we consider that challenge to be ludicrous and just about impossible in this state. We feel Illinois government at every level, state, county and city, has a “durable competitive disadvantage” in providing simple government services in relation to private companies for at least five reasons:

1.     Illinois government workers get more than double the paid holidays of private workers;

2.     Illinois government workers get as much as six weeks of paid vacation which, if not used, can be accrued and kept for years—no private company does this;

3.     Illinois government workers get “Cadillac©” health care benefits paid by Illinois taxpayers at low or no cost to the government worker in a fashion no private company provides;

4.     Illinois government workers get generous lifetime pensions at a fraction of the cost in relation to similar employees in the private sector;

5.     Illinois government workers get workers’ compensation benefits in a fashion which would rapidly bankrupt any private company.

As you and most of our readers are focused on workers’ compensation issues, we will maintain that singular focus and leave other daunting issues to civic leaders like Mr. Emanuel and Doug Whitley, the President of the Illinois State Chamber.

What may be the main problem with administration of workers’ compensation for Illinois government workers? We simply cannot expect them to police themselves sufficiently, and while we are starting to see some positive things happening, we are worried about the Illinois Government Vortex:

·         Almost all Illinois government workers at every level of management are in unions;

·         State, county and municipal unions collect millions of dollars in union dues;

·         State, county and municipal unions take the dues and use them to donate heavily to political candidates and telephone their union members and demand they vote for their candidates;

·         Those political candidates win office and do whatever union members want.

What is the problem with all of this? Well, we assure you many Illinois government entities don’t use simple, ordinary workers’ compensation investigative and management measures to insure they are paying benefits reasonably owed. For one simple example, Cook County does not require their injured workers to fill out work accident forms. Why would they eschew this simple investigative technique? Well, a couple of years back, a worker filled out an accident investigation form in a fashion inconsistent with his medical records. His benefits were denied and it appeared he committed workers’ compensation fraud—after that happened, you would think the County would ramp up their successful investigation techniques. To the contrary, the County stopped “allowing” their workers to fill out such forms and lock themselves into a story!! So, we assure you some percentage of WC fraud is expected in their WC program—they aren’t taking simple steps to root it out.

On another level, having accepted a claim, we are certain the City of Chicago has not used surveillance to check on its injured workers for years. Why would they avoid surveillance? They don’t want to catch workers who are malingering or otherwise abusing their right to TTD. Similarly, very few governments at every level in this state provide light duty for their workers to minimize TTD and get them back to work. Many agencies allow the workers to make liberal use of the “one-year-off-with-full-pay” rule to allow hundreds of workers to get even more time off than anyone in the private sector would ever allow. We feel this creates a “ghost workforce” with a hefty percentage of government workers who are perennially off work and getting workers’ compensation benefits along with the “full pay” differential which is all being paid by the taxpayers.

This clearly isn’t limited to the County of Cook or the City of Chicago, news from southern Illinois disclosed Lt. Jay Ziegler, a lieutenant at the Menard Correctional Facility received his temporary total disability check for $2,092 and that same day was in his boat on Carlyle Lake helping the Murphysboro High School Red Devils’ bass fishing team at the state finals last May. Ziegler was off work after he underwent surgery for an undisputed repetitive trauma injury to his wrists and elbows. On Jan. 13, 2011, he received a tax-free check funded by you and I as taxpayers for $76,326 based on his workers’ compensation claim. This settlement followed a similar $42,043 settlement he received Dec. 23, 2009, for an injury he stated resulted when he supposedly sprained his right shoulder performing the only-in-Menard-is-it-dangerous to carry "food trays up stairs" at the prison. In just over one year, Ziegler collected $118,369 for injuries while on the job. He also collected a total of $17,397 after being paid temporary total disability during two periods, one in 2009 and the one in 2010. In all, he received $135,766 in taxpayer-funded workers' comp payments. Ziegler is the vice-president of the Southern Illinois Bass Club—even the simplest of surveillance operatives would have readily located him on their club website. Oops, it appears clear no one is following up or performing such simple surveillance techniques to insure benefits are paid when due. Illinois government workers don’t check up on their brethren.

State Rep. Dwight Kay has called for a full investigation of the WC program at the prison facility and, last week, the Illinois House voted 111-0 for his resolution for an audit and investigation of workers’ compensation awards to state workers. One problem for them to consider is at least one CMS/state WC claims adjuster who is supposed to be reining in costs on such claims has already received a “repetitive trauma” settlement herself. The Arbitrator who used to consider such claims got about $50,000 for a settlement before recently being suspended with pay for other reasons. The warden at the same prison got about $75,000 for his “non-accident” shoulder claims. Doesn’t it appear those government managers would want other government workers to get the same generous benefits they got from the taxpayers? Is there a “limit switch” anywhere on this stuff?

We ask the rhetorical question: can Illinois government workers rein in Illinois government workers? Isn’t there an environment present in which our government officials know this is happening and don’t truly care because their government union brethren are benefiting from it at taxpayer expense? Isn’t that one reason for all the workers’ compensation secrecy in this state—shhhhhhh, don’t let the dopey taxpayers know and we can reap in millions?

We salute Dwight Kay and our plea to both him and the Illinois House is to not stop at this prison with its ludicrous situation of paying out hundreds of “non-accident” WC claims to managers and line employees. Start to look at workers’ compensation in government across Illinois and compare it to systems in the private sector. And remember, if you can’t bring the Illinois public workforce into alignment with the private sector, consider bringing in the private sector to replace Illinois government workers. For an example, lots of states use private contractors to run prisons—private contractors wouldn’t and couldn’t put up with such silliness. For another simple example, Indiana doesn’t have government workers on its tollways anymore and Illinois could save millions in tax dollars if we would mirror the private managers or hire them to run out tollways.

The research and articles on the Menard situation are credited to the ground-breaking and stellar work of George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer of the Belleville News-Democrat. As to the rest of it, we appreciate your thoughts and comments. Please do not hesitate to post them on our award-winning blog at www.keefe-law.com/blog.