Prison guards who turn a lot of keys in locks were some of the biggest claimants for workers compensation payouts.
Workers filing on-the-job injury claims at just a dozen state institutions clustered in southern Illinois collected nearly one-third of the total $127 million awarded in recent years for permanent impairment under Illinois' troubled workers' compensation system, The Associated Press has found.
Leading the pack was Menard Correctional Center in Chester, according to an AP analysis of state records. Employees at the prison, now a focus of three fraud investigations into the injury-claim process, collected $19 million in long-term benefits from 2007 through 2010. That's nearly twice the amount previously reported.
But beyond Menard, the AP study found a pattern of large payouts at 11 other state facilities within 80 miles -- including prisons and juvenile detention centers, mental health and developmental centers. In all, the dozen state facilities accounted for $40.7 million of the compensation for injured workers' long-term impairment during those four years.
The AP's line-by-line review provides the first comprehensive account of the extent of payouts at government facilities, though not private business, under the workers' comp system before lawmakers revamped it this year. The examination focused on about 7,800 cases obtained from the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission through the Freedom of Information Act.
The AP analyzed paid claims statewide after linking nearly all the employees with cases to one of hundreds of government divisions, including worksites such as prisons. Compared to the $40.7 million paid on 861 claims at the 12 southern work sites, taxpayers put out $24 million on 963 claims at 51 similar facilities elsewhere in Illinois. Hundreds of cases were still pending at the end of the period the data covers.
The AP study also found discrepancies between the total claims and awards granted in specific facilities _ for instance, more at a newer prison in Pinckneyville than at the 85-year-old Stateville Correctional Center with double the payroll.
Why such a high percentage of awards in one area?
The answer could involve an employee culture that encouraged injury claims at the facilities in the vicinity, the awards decisions of several state-employed arbitrators now under scrutiny by federal investigators, and a strapped Illinois government that some say did not strenuously contest the claims.
A torrent of benefits awarded to Menard employees -- many for repetitive stress like the nerve disorder carpal tunnel syndrome -- was first reported nearly a year ago by the Belleville News-Democrat, fueling legislative reforms last spring and gaining the attention of federal prosecutors and state regulators.
The arbitrators deciding injury compensation were instrumental. Nine in 10 of the claims receiving long-term benefits at the southern Illinois facilities were assigned to just three arbitrators, who oversaw payment of $34 million.
One of them, John Dibble, was responsible for $28 million himself, including $14.8 million at Menard, the AP's analysis showed.
The three arbitrators were named in subpoenas by two U.S. attorneys seeking e-mail and other computer information. None was reappointed when Gov. Pat Quinn named new arbitrators this fall in response to the legislative overhaul of the system.
Dibble could not be reached for comment. But one of the other two ex-arbitrators mentioned in the subpoenas said the state made little effort to fight claims by workers who came with medical evidence and good lawyers.
"We're supposed to hear the facts, decide the facts, and apply the facts based on the law,'' said former arbitrator Andrew Nalefski of Glen Carbon, "and when there's no contrary evidence, how do you deny the claim?''
Nalefski said he has spoken to investigators who have told him he's not a target of the probe. Between 2007 and 2010, he was responsible for $6.9 million in permanent impairment awards.
Anne Spillane, chief of staff for the Illinois attorney general, countered that the state ``never gave up defending as vigorously as possible'' compensation cases. But southern Illinois arbitrators often paid higher awards for repetitive stress than others elsewhere in the state and some decided claims based on past cases rather than listening to state evidence, she said.
And Illinois has very low criteria for proving what is known as "causation,'' or how job duties contributed to the injury, she said. The reform law allowed Quinn to name new arbitrators and put a cap on awards for repetitive stress injuries, but didn't address the causation bar.
Edward Fisher, a Chester attorney who handled many of the southern Illinois cases, suggested awareness of the law among workers in the area also contributed to the volume of claims and awards. Claims beget claims -- the more filed, the more people encourage injured co-workers to pursue their benefits, Fisher said, calling it "the psychology of the group."
The AP contacted a dozen injured state employees but none would talk publicly. One worker at Pinckneyville prison who had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome said even with automation, guards still turn keys in individual locks 50 to 100 times a day. He said on the recommendation of another state employee, he sought out a Fairview attorney to help him with part of his case. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the negative publicity surrounding the issue.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing most of the employees, defended legitimate compensation for injuries at work in prisons and mental health hospitals. "That work is difficult, it is physically intensive, and it can be dangerous, and people get hurt,'' spokesman Anders Lindall said
Awards at the southern Illinois worksites -- in Anna, Centralia, Chester, Harrisburg, Ina, Murphysboro, Pinckneyville, Tamms, and Vienna -- were high despite their varying functions and ages.
For example, workers at Menard blamed repetitive stress injuries on operating the 130-year-old prison's hand-crank locks. But payments -- many for the same type of injury -- at the more modern Pinckneyville prison, just 35 miles from Chester, ranked second-highest in the state despite a more up-to-date electronic locking system.
Pinckneyville employees received $4.6 million for permanent-injury claims, compared to only $1.6 million at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, which opened in 1925 and has twice as many employees.
In another instance, workers at the Chester Mental Health Center, with a staff of 460 and just a few miles from Menard, received $3.9 million in awards. By contrast, Elgin Mental Health Center in the Chicago suburbs, with 660 workers, received only $430,000 in awards.
Workers at Chester had seven times as many awards for injuries resulting from "altercation'' or "assault'' -- attributable, officials say, to a population of sometimes violent, criminally committed residents. But Chester had 200 other cases of injury, compared to an overall total of 53 at Elgin.