SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers have been talking for months, trying to find a compromise on sweeping changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers have been talking for months, trying to find a compromise on sweeping changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system.

But all of the talk hasn’t changed the reality for Tom Mercier. He’s the president of Bloomington Offset Process Inc., or BOPI, a printing company in the central Illinois towns of Bloomington-Normal.

Mercier said he’s been waiting for months for something to happen to lessen the costs or scope of workers’ comp in Illinois. But he’s also been dealing with the reality of the current system.

“We’ve been doing pre-employment physicals. We have random drug tests. There’s a lot we’re trying to do to make sure we have good quality people who work for us,” said Mercier. “But I tell you … I had an employee who went to the doctor on a foot problem. He comes back and says ‘(The doctor) is telling me I’ve got carpal tunnel really bad and I need carpal tunnel surgery.’ And he’s walking good today. … I think he got a sales job.”

Mercier said if lawmakers can tweak the cost, or cause, of workers’ comp claims, it could go a long way to helping his shop of about 50 workers.

“The rest of the place may not get a raise. The employee health benefit may have to change how much we pay into it. Presently, I pick up 90 percent of the employees’ health care costs,” said Mercier.

But it’s not just about paychecks and benefits. Mercier said workers’ comp costs are part of the question of whether his business is competitive — and not just competitive with other businesses in Bloomington-Normal.

“We’re in the business-to-business area, so if businesses continue to move out of this state or expand out of the state, that’s going to have a dramatic effect on my business. Electrolux from Bloomington is leaving. They’re going to North Carolina.” said Mercier.

Chris Olsen, vice president of community and governmental affairs for Tate & Lyle, said the business that supplies ingredients to the food and beverage industries has to be globally competitive.

“We sell our ingredients all over the world, and we need to be competitive with companies all over the world. So we really need to look at (workers’ comp reform) or reducing our costs to keep us competitive,” said Olsen.

Tate & Lyle employs hundreds in Decatur, and has a corporate structure that makes handling workers’ compensation cases different from smaller employers like Mercier. But Olsen said that still doesn’t make it any cheaper.

“When an injury happens, it takes time from management, supervisors, support staff, doctors, lawyers, so the costs really add up over time,” Olsen said.

Gov. Pat Quinn spoke to Olsen and Mercier and several hundred other manufacturers and retailers in Springfield on Wednesday. Quinn told the business audience that he wants to see Illinois’ system changed, and become more competitive.

But the governor didn’t have any specifics beyond that. His office has not introduced legislation, and Quinn is not taking sides on the current proposals moving under the Capitol dome.

The governor also sidestepped the focus of workers’ compensation negotiations — the cause of a worker’s injury.

“The best way to go at it is to take what courts and judges have said about where the injury must occur and how it must occur, and put that in the statute,” said Quinn. “I think that’s the best way to go. We’re going to try to codify the words of the judge or the court on this issue that injuries must be during the course of employment.”

But fellow Democrat, State. Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, said that may not be possible.

“It’s my professional and legal opinion that if you want full causation, the only way to do that constitutionally and legally is to blow up the system and send them back to circuit court,” said Bradley, who is a lawyer.

Mercier said there has to be some middle ground, or at least common sense.

“If somebody gets hurt on the job, I want them fixed. I want them back to work. I want to do everything I can for them. I pay for long-term disability for all of my workers, out of my pocket … I believe in my employees. I’ve got a good group of people who have stayed with me for a long time and I’ll take care of them,” said Mercier. “But if somebody is doing kick-boxing stuff on the weekend, and all of a sudden their shoulder hurts on Monday — you know what, it’s not from BOPI.”

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