The Chicago Bears and Illinois Workers’ Compensation Reform

Opinion & Analysis

Football playing being tackled

A proposed bill would limit professional athletes from receiving Illinois workers’ compensation wage differential benefits past the age of 35, rather than the current age limit of 67 that applies to all employees, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin reports.

The proposal is reportedly the responsibility of the McCaskey family, who own the Chicago Bears. It is also reportedly supported by the Chicago Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks.

At first thought, the Chicago Bears’ proposal makes sense: why should players continue to receive weekly benefits designed to compensate them for lost earnings until they are 67 years old when they usually retire around 35? It’s a “windfall,” according to the Chicago Bears’ general counsel.

The problem with this argument is that the weekly benefit rate is capped at a maximum amount that prevents any Chicago Bear player from receiving fair compensation for the lost future earnings they suffer as a result of a career-ending injury.

This proposal is not in response to any effects of multi-million dollar salaries on workers’ compensation benefit calculations. Under the current maximum caps on wage differential benefits, there is no difference in benefits for anyone who was earning over ~$100,000 per year before their accident.

Illinois Wage Differential Benefits

Wage differential benefits are equal to two thirds (2/3) of the difference between what someone could have been earning if the accident did not happen and what they are able to earn now with their permanent disability.

However, there are maximum rate caps that limit the wage differential benefit based on the date of accident. For accidents between January 15, 2017 and July 14, 2017, the maximum rate is $1,076.38 per week. IWCC. This means that no one in Illinois can receive more than $55,971.76 per year in wage differential benefits.

Everyone who was earning over ~$100,000 before their accident will receive the same maximum weekly wage differential benefit.

The Illinois workers’ compensation system was significantly reformed in 2011. While wage differential benefits were previously payable for life, for all accidents occurring after September 1, 2011, benefits are only payable until the employee reaches the age of 67 (or 5 years from the date the award becomes final, whichever is later). 820 ILCS 305/8(d)(1) Illinois General Assembly | IWCC PDF.

There are multiple types of permanent disability benefits that are available under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, but the Illinois Supreme Court has noted that wage differential benefits are the preferred remedy because they accurately reflect lost earnings. General Electric Co. v. Industrial Commission, 89 Ill. 2d 432 (1982) (“In theory, the basis of the workers’ compensation system should be earnings loss, not the schedule.”) Google Scholar.

The idea that the Chicago Bears should not be required to pay wage differential benefits like every other employer because its employees are “beyond the realm of the skilled worker contemplated” in the Workers’ Compensation Act was rejected by the Illinois Appellate Court in Albrecht v. Industrial Commission, 271 Ill. App. 3d 756 (1995) Google Scholar.

The Lowest Earning Chicago Bear Rookie

The wage differential cap hits every NFL player equally, as they all have a minimum salary far beyond $100,000 based on the number of years in the league. In 2017, the minimum salary is $465,000 for the first year and $540,000 for the second.

With these high of salaries, a career-ending accident can quickly and easily result in millions of lost future earnings for any player.

Let’s assume a hypothetical case of a 22 year old rookie, earning the minimum salary of $465,000, who suffers a career-ending injury but is physically able to return to another kind of work.

At the maximum benefit rate of $1,076.38 per week, and the benefits ending in 45 years when he reaches 67, the rookie can expect a total payout of $2,518,729.20 over his lifetime.

Two and half million dollars paid over the course of 45 years only has a present value of about 1 million dollars, which is about what this workers’ compensation case would settle for in Illinois.

Under the current law then, neither the rookie nor the star quarterback will be able to settle a wage differential case for more than about 1 million dollars.

Our hypothetical rookie would have earned this 1 million dollars in just 2 years of play! Obviously higher paid players and players staying in the NFL for longer periods can make millions more. And these players would lose even more future earnings at the current wage differential benefit levels.

Now, depending on whether you ask the NFL or the NFL Players Association, the average NFL career spans between 3 and 6 years.

Either way, this means that for even the lowest paid NFL players who would only have been in the league for an average length of time, the wage differential benefits in Illinois will not fully compensate their lost earnings for a career-ending injury, even if the benefits are paid until they are 67 years old.

If the purpose of the workers’ compensation system generally, and wage differential benefits specifically, is to compensate employees for the loss of earning capacity that they suffer as the result of workplace injuries, the current rate caps are absolutely defeating that purpose – particularly for high earners such as Chicago Bears players. And under the proposal to limit benefits to age 35, the players would receive only a fraction of that.

How is that fair?

If the Chicago Bears want special interest legislation ending wage differential benefits at age 35 so that benefits more accurately reflect the length of careers in their industry, they must also agree to the removal of maximum benefit rate caps so that the benefits more accurately reflect the lost earnings players suffer when they have career-ending injuries.

This article does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.