Posted January 25, 2017 2:31 PM
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State senate proposal would end disability benefits for pro athletes at age 35

Richard R. Gordon
Richard R. Gordon
By Sarah Mansur
Law Bulletin correspondent

SPRINGFIELD — Most permanently injured workers in Illinois can claim workers’ compensation benefits until age 67.

But a small provision buried in a reform bill discussed by a Senate committee this week would change the workers’ compensation law to end disability benefits for professional athletes at age 35.

A Chicago personal-injury lawyer and a lobbyist representing the NFL Players Association testified against the provision during the Senate Executive Committee hearing Tuesday, challenging the notion that all professional athletes make multimillion-dollar salaries.

Richard R. Gordon, owner of Gordon Law Offices Ltd., said Senate Bill 12 would most negatively impact athletes who make less than $100,000 in a year, like some players for men’s and women’s pro soccer teams and players on minor-league hockey and baseball teams.

“That’s who this law would hurt,” Gordon said.

The bill is tied to a larger compromise package intended to place pressure on the governor and lawmakers in the House to resolve the budget impasse, although none of the bills received a vote in committee Tuesday.

While Senate President John J. Cullerton, D-Chicago, and GOP leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, have said the compromise package could be voted on as early as today, it appears unlikely that the bills in the package will make it out of committee this week.

SB 12 would add a provision to the Workers’ Compensation Act that targets professional athletes who receive permanent partial disability benefits.

It defines a professional athlete as someone who is employed by a professional athletic team based in Illinois and “derives the majority of his or her income from playing athletics” for the team.

Under current law, these injured employees may be entitled to a wage differential award — a benefit calculated based on the difference between the amount earned in a post-injury job and the amount earned in a pre-injury job.

The bill identifies professional athletes as the only category of injured workers who are ineligible for a wage differential award beyond age 35.

“If you pass a bill today that segregates one class of Illinois workers, how long until the business community comes back again and says we should carve out another group? And where do you draw the line? It’s a very slippery slope,” Gordon said.

He said the provision would imply that professional athletes don’t deserve the same protections from dangerous jobs as other workers.

“This law draws an arbitrary line that says, ‘Over here, we will protect you, but if you are over here, if you are a professional athlete then we will treat you differently.’ That’s not what the equal protection cause of the Illinois state constitution is about,” Gordon said.

Gordon called out the McCaskey family, which owns the Chicago Bears, as the party responsible for advancing the provision.

NFLPA lobbyist Joe Briggs said the bill in its current form would treat players differently from other injured employees in the state.

“We just don’t think that’s right,” Briggs said.

He presented a hypothetical situation where an athletic trainer and athlete are both involved in a bus accident while driving to practice, are both permanently injured and both become eligible for a wage differential award as a result of the accident.

In this scenario, he said, the proposed bill would allow the trainer to continue to receive benefits until age 67, while the athlete would not receive benefits after age 35.

Before Gordon and Briggs testified, Radogno described workers’ compensation benefits for certain professional athletes as “a cottage industry” where athletes can receive benefits long after they retire from sports at age 35 or 40.

Following the testimonies, Radogno said she would be willing to take another look at the provision.

“The testimony they provided with respect to various situations makes sense,” Radogno said.

Sen. Kwame Y. Raoul, D-Chicago, said he would consider removing the provision into a separate bill that is not tied to drafting a budget.

“It’s really not a critical component of workers’ compensation reform in that context that we have been talking about it in this package,” Raoul said.

Radogno said the bill overall is an effort to respond to the concerns from the business community that workers’ compensation costs are too high.

The latest version of the bill removes earlier language that addressed the concept of intervening cause, and defined compensible injuries for traveling employees.

Radogno said changes to the causation standard — or the threshold employees must meet in order to receive benefits for injuries — have been taken off the negotiating table for now.

“I think there has been an agreement and an understanding that [causation] may not be the be-all and end-all in getting to a more competitive state for workers compensation,” she said.

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