Behind the guise of so-called reform, Gov. Bruce Rauner has opened a new front in the 40-year war on American workers that has left the average person with less wealth, real income, and economic security, and is undermining the strength of our nation.
After being propelled to the governorship with a record $60 million dollars – money mostly raised from the country’s wealthiest families and businesses – and offering few specifics but plenty of platitudes and pleasant promises, Rauner has demanded that lawmakers roll back the financial safeguards that our state’s tort and workers’ compensation systems afford to the vast majority of Illinoisans. If successful, Rauner and his allies will only worsen the position of an embattled middle class that has suffered a substantial decline in its financial security and real wages for the last forty years.
The False Promise of ‘Tort Reform’
The fact is that very few Americans ever file lawsuits. In Illinois, more than 70 percent of court actions are initiated by businesses suing other businesses or individuals for money. Gov. Rauner has not proposed limiting the ability of corporations, banks and investment companies, like the one that made him rich, to use the court system. Since 2007, the number of all civil cases in Illinois courts is down 26 percent. As for medical malpractice cases, the number brought in our state has steadily declined over the past decade; it’s fallen nearly 40 percent since 2003.
When very wealthy citizens of our state are sickened or disabled due to someone else’s wrongdoing, they need not worry as to whether the resources will be there to care for them. They won’t face the possibility of destitution, losing their home and life savings. But, that’s not the case for most Illinoisans, who must turn to our courts for help if they are to have any hope of avoiding ruin when they are unable to work or care for themselves.
If Gov. Rauner and his allies want to have a debate over what justice means for someone who lost a child due to a physician’s gross negligence, a worker maimed because his plant didn’t want to spend a few extra dollars for safer equipment, or for an individual killed when shrapnel severed their carotid artery after a defective airbag inexplicably exploded in their face, let’s have that debate and not hide behind other issues. The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association wishes Gov. Rauner the best in tackling the state's true challenges, but linking them to unrelated matters is placing extremist ideology and the politics of greed before the best interests of our state’s citizens.
Insurance Companies Pocketing Workers’ Comp Savings
Since 2011, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) has recommended a nearly 20 percent rate reduction for Illinois insurance premiums. A recent study by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services showed Illinois had a 24 percent reduction in workers’ compensation rates between 2012 and 2014, which is the steepest drop in the nation. However, as many employers will note, they have yet to see any decrease in their premiums. Instead, insurance companies have pocketed the difference while disingenuously continuing to blame protections that help workers and their families attain justice when they are badly hurt or killed due to business malfeasance or negligence.
In 2011, at the strong request of business and insurance companies, the state’s workers’ compensation “reform” package was signed into law. It was intended to lower costs for employers in Illinois. Workers gave up longstanding rights and insurance companies, in return, were to be transparent with pricing and pass savings along to employers through premium reductions. However, these changes have had a negative effect on workers in Illinois and their ability to receive fair and reasonable compensation when they are injured on the job. In addition, the new law has not resulted in any meaningful savings for employers in Illinois. Cries from our new governor and his big business supporters, for more so-called “reforms” will likely only further erode the rights of injured workers while helping to boost the insurance industry’s bottom line.
There are 330 insurance companies competing for and writing workers’ compensation insurance in our state because it is the second most profitable line of insurance after auto insurance, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance. Even amid their calls for so-called reform, the insurance industry continues to make record profits at the expense of business owners and the rights of those injured or killed while working.
Illinois Deserves Better than a Race to the Bottom
Gov. Rauner, a multi-millionaire who owns nine houses, has suggested workers should fund a higher minimum wage by weakening currently modest workplace protections and forfeiting the right to reasonable compensation for those who suffer severe or catastrophic injuries. It would be a tremendous misinterpretation of last year’s election results to believe that Illinoisans want to place business profits, at record highs in 2014, and the interests of the monied and powerful above injured workers and victims of malfeasance. It also defies belief that Illinoisans voted to support weak laws that allow negligent drivers, polluters, careless professionals and derelict corporations to escape accountability when their actions hurt others.
Eroding the constitutional rights of citizens to access the courts that their tax dollars fund would send the message that our civil justice system is mainly for the use of corporations and the wealthy, rather than something that belongs to everyone, regardless of their means.
Gov. Rauner’s proposals should be seen for what they are: a declaration of war against the financial security and prospects of middle and lower income Illinoisans by Rauner and the fellow millionaires and billionaires who put him in office. Illinois lawmakers would do well to reject race-to-the-bottom policies that leave most of their constituents poorer and more vulnerable, while benefitting only a few at the very top, who have done just fine and work in very safe office suites and boardrooms.
John Cooney is President of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.