Jesse Jackson Jr., the former congressman convicted and sentenced to prison for misusing campaign funds, is collecting about $100,000 a year in federal workers’ compensation benefits for bipolar disorder and depression, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The story has not so surprisingly generated collective outrage (at least in online comment sections) with suggestions of public corruption and exorbitant workers’ compensation benefits for undeserving and unrelated mental health conditions, all at taxpayer expense.
With the battle raging over Governor Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” reforms of the Illinois workers’ compensation system (PDF), which are supported by the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board with hypothetical stories of fraud and fear that Illinois will not win the race to the bottom with our neighboring states, it is important to read this article carefully and to note a few things.
Our workers’ compensation systems must be defended, even in light of allegations of wrongdoing by Jesse Jackson Jr., who will now be the perfect villain for the calls to gut benefits for injured workers.
First and foremost, the Jackson story concerns federal workers’ compensation benefits, not the Illinois workers’ compensation system that covers most Illinois employees.
Next, while $100,000 may seem high, workers’ compensation disability benefits are not exorbitant in either the federal or the Illinois system. The Chicago Tribune reports that Jackson is receiving temporary total disability benefits at the maximum federal rate – 75% of the GS-15 salary of $133,444 per year, or $1,924.67 per week.
For Illinois temporary total disability benefits, the weekly rate is equal to only 66 2/3% of the employee’s average weekly wage. However, this is subject to a maximum limitation of $1,435.17 per week for accidents occurring between January 1, 2017 and July 14, 2017. IWCC.
Even though workers’ compensation benefits are tax-free, most injured workers under the federal and Illinois systems are still receiving effectively less in benefits than they would be earning had they not been injured. Injured workers face incredible health, employment, and financial strain and uncertainty.
It is hard to see how payment of a fraction of their usual wages during recovery is too generous. Most workers can imagine how difficult their lives would be if they were suddenly earning less money and seriously injured.
Finally, the Chicago Tribune article provides no context for mental health claims, suggesting through a lawyer who apparently specializes in representing federal workers that a mental health condition must be fully caused or created by the job:
“What’s remarkable here is by his getting workers’ comp, it appears that Congressman Jackson’s attorneys have convinced the government that his bipolar disorder was created by the rigors of being a member of Congress,” [the attorney] said.
Because it is obvious that work does not create bipolar disorder, the article unjustifiably places Jackson, lawyers, the government, and the whole workers’ compensation system in disrepute.
What’s actually remarkable here is that the article contains absolutely no discussion of the relevant legal standard – aggravation of a pre-existing condition. See, for example, Swafford v. U.S., 998 F.2d 837 (1993) (discussing award of federal workers’ compensation benefits for aggravation of chronic depression) Google Scholar.
Although, in one of the few sentences discussing the basis of the workers’ compensation claim, the article does include an unrelated statement that Jackson’s bipolar disorder and depression were aggravated by his divorce:
The payments flow to Jackson because he has bipolar disorder and depression — the issues that led to an extended leave from Congress in 2012 — and those conditions have been exacerbated by a “very difficult, contentious divorce” from former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, [Jesse Jackson Jr.’s attorney] said.
In Illinois workers’ compensation cases, the standard for mental health claims is even stricter than the federal standard. For a “mental-mental” claim, the claimant must prove that he or she suffered a “sudden, severe emotional shock traceable to a definite time, place and cause which causes psychological injury or harm.” Chicago Transit Authority v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2013 IL App (1st) 120253WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.
In other words, Illinois does not allow mental health claims based on everyday work stress:
To allow compensation for a gradually developing mental disability which is attributed to factors such as worry, anxiety, tension, pressure, and overwork without proof of a specific time, place, and event producing the disability would open a floodgate for workers who succumb to the everyday pressures of life.
Illinois workers must prove that that this “sudden, severe emotional shock” arose out of and in the course of their employment and that it was “a casual factor in the resulting condition of ill-being,” which includes aggravation or acceleration of a pre-existing condition. Sisbro, Inc. v. Industrial Commission, 207 Ill. 2d 193 (2003) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts.
In sum, the Chicago Tribune’s Jesse Jackson Jr. story contains hardly any relevant facts of his workers’ compensation case or discussion of the relevant legal standards. It is certainly newsworthy but more reporting is necessary before anyone jumps to conclusions of fraud, corruption, or misconceptions about workers’ compensation programs and benefits.
Finally, while this Chicago Tribune article does not mention Illinois workers’ compensation reform efforts, the Governor’s “Turnaround Agenda” still looms over us and we must not let this story be confused or misused in our current debate.