Editorial: Pull back curtain on Ald. Burke’s workers comp fiefdom

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Ald. Ed Burke at a Chicago City Council meeting on Feb. 10, 2016. Brian Jackson/ for the Sun-Times

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For more than a century in Chicago, a mere City Council committee — now tightly controlled by a single powerful alderman — has called the shots on all worker compensation claims, in recent years shelling out what experts say is a “staggering” amount of money.

Feel free to scream about that the next time Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Council decide to jack up your property taxes. Demand that they take Ald. Ed Burke down a peg first and bring the Chicago Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation into the 21st century.

Across the country, big cities have placed the responsibility for overseeing millions of dollars in payments to municipal workers injured or killed on the job under the control of a city department.

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The New York City Law Department handles the Big Apple’s worker compensation claims. In Los Angeles, the city Personnel Department administers them.

But in Chicago? Here, the Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation, bizarrely, is under the purview of the City Council Committee on Finance. Under the city’s municipal code, it’s been that way since at least 1913.

That means the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ comp fiefdom is headed by Burke, alderman of the 14th Ward and longtime Finance Committee chairman.

The municipal code also gives Burke alone the power to hire workmen’s comp employees. Audits of the bureau’s claim decisions are not required.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson has no auditing oversight, thanks to a recent City Council “IG-Light” compromise that walled off workmen’s comp and other programs controlled by aldermen from IG audits.

Eugene Keefe of the Keefe, Campbell, Biery & Associates workers’ compensation defense law firm once called the city’s $115 million payout in 2011 workmen’s comp claims “staggering.”

“No municipality in the United States pays that much or anything close to that much for workers’ compensation benefits,’’ Keefe wrote back in 2012. “Finance Chairman Ed Burke has been running that money-hemorrhaging program with an iron fist and as secretly as it can be run for decades.”

We’ve seen little evidence that much has changed since – except that the city’s finances have worsened to crisis levels.

At a time when Chicago faces budget woes up the wazoo, the organizational structure of the Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation is a blazing example of bad government. It is rife with the potential for cronyism, waste and inefficiency just when Chicago has no pennies to spare.

Two aldermen are trying to bring this more than 100-year-old anomaly into the modern era.

A resolution by Aldermen John Arena (45th) and Scott Waguespack (32nd) calls for hearings into the city’s workmen’s comp practicesby the City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations.

The aldermanic pair want to hear exactly what procedures the Finance Committee uses to investigate and process claims and to check for fraud. They want to explore if it makes sense to move all these functions into the city’s executive branch — and if so, where.

They have suggested the city Law Department as one destination, although that city bastion could be busy at the moment battling nagging questions about police shootings.

Finance Committee officials insist workmen’s comp auditing is done. For at least the last two years, Aon Risk Solutions has conducted a “Workers’ Compensation Reserve Analysis and Forecast.” Those numbers are eventually plugged into the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

The problem is, Waguespack said, the number crunchers “are given dollar amounts and they add them up and see if 2 plus 2 is 4. But they don’t look at how you got 2 plus 2.”

Pulling back the curtain on the operations of the city’s workmen’s comp program with a public hearing would be a welcomed move.

And graduating from such a hearing to a successful City Council ordinance that would amend the Municipal Code and put workmen’s comp in the executive branch would be even better. Doing so would make workmen’s comp subject to IG audits that aldermen recently prohibited with their gutted IG ordinance.

But this is Chicago.

Chances are, the Arena-Waguespack resolution will never make it to a hearing. The parliamentary maneuvering has already begun, aldermen say, with moves afoot to transfer the resolution to Burke’s Finance Committee. Or, it could sit forever in the Rules Committee, never to see the light of day.

And Chicago could remain stuck in the 1900s when it comes to workmen’s comp — but with 21st-century-sized workmen’s compbills.

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