CHESTER, Ill. — In less than three years, nearly $10 million in state taxpayer-funds has been awarded in workers' compensation payments to employees at Illinois' Menard Correctional Center where 389 guards and other workers — more than half the maximum security lockup's entire staff — have claimed an on-the-job injury.
More than 500 claims, including a $75,678 payment to the prison's warden in June, have been filed since Jan. 1, 2008. Approximately 290 cases are pending. More than 230 prison workers contend they were injured not because of an accident but through repetitive trauma caused over years mainly by operating manual cell locking mechanisms. Carpal tunnel syndrome can result from repetitive trauma.
After learning the results of a News-Democrat investigation that revealed these figures, Mitch Weisz, chairman of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, said Wednesday he has called for an official investigation of the Menard claims by the state's Department of Insurance and has contacted the agency's Director Michael McRaith.
"I have sent an e-mail to Director McRaith and told him I want to sit down with him to discuss whether we can get the fraud investigation unit to look into this," Weisz said, adding that he will try to meet with McRaith in the next few days.
"(The newspaper) brought this to our attention and we're intending to follow up on this. I told him I felt that it needed to be investigated," Weisz said.
"I'm surprised that with all the different agencies that are involved, that it's taken you guys to bring this to my attention. My eyes are wide open. ... It's hard for me to imagine it's all kosher."
Cara Smith, a deputy attorney general and spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said her office is conducting a, "Re-evaluation of all the carpal tunnel (repetitive trauma) cases to determine their validity and appropriateness for compensation," especially those from Menard and other prison sites. Smith also said that a "job site analysis" will be carried out at Menard and other prison locations to determine if injuries can be avoided. It is unclear whether awarded judgments can be rescinded.
Fairview Heights attorney Thomas Rich, whose office has handled a majority of the prison's compensation claims since 2008, said that a check of his own records showed that an overwhelming proportion of repetitive trauma claims by state workers were approved without opposition. A lawyer from the Illinois Attorney General represents the employer if it is a state agency, in this case the Department of Corrections.
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