Chicago Is Better Than This

02.25.2016

By Joan E. Collier

Ah, Chicago. My favorite big town. The Sears Tower (sorry, Willis), Wrigley Field, the Magnificent Mile, Navy Pier, and, of course, the eternal and boundless political cronyism.

Chicago media is reporting the latest scandal. Edward Burke, chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee, is being publicly accused of allowing “political hacks” to administer the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program.

Burke, 72, is alderman of the 14th Ward. A Democrat, he was first elected to the Chicago City Council in 1969, and represents part of the city's Southwest Side.

The Sun Times reports that, “Jay Stone, the maverick son of former longtime Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), filed a complaint with Inspector General Joe Ferguson, asking Ferguson to investigate” Burke. Stone says that Burke put “his handpicked political appointees” in charge of the program, in violation of the Shakman decree banning political hiring.

The Shakman saga is an interesting story in and of itself, unique to Chicago.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “In 1969, one man made his stand against the Chicago political machine. Michael Shakman, an independent candidate for delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention, battled against one of the most enduring traditions in Chicago's politics: political patronage, or the practice of hiring and firing government workers on the basis of political loyalty. With many behind-the-scenes supporters, Shakman's years of determination resulted in what became known as the ‘Shakman decrees.’

“Shakman filed suit against the Democratic Organization of Cook County, arguing that the patronage system put nonorganized candidates and their supporters at an illegal and unconstitutional disadvantage. Politicians could hire, fire, promote, transfer—in essence, punish—employees for not supporting the system, or more particularly, a certain politician. The suit also argued that political patronage wasted taxpayer money because public employees, while at work, would often be forced to campaign for political candidates.”

“In 1972, after an exhaustive court procedure and much negotiating, the parties reached an agreement prohibiting politically motivated firings, demotions, transfers, or other punishment of government employees. A 1979 ruling led to a court order in 1983 that made it unlawful to take any political factor into account in hiring public employees (with exceptions for positions such as policy making). Those decisions along with companion consent judgments—collectively called the Shakman decrees—are binding on more than 40 city and statewide offices.”

Back to today—and how well those decrees are working.

Shakman, still alive and kicking, says that “Chicago’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program is an ‘executive branch responsibility’ with jobs that should be ‘filled under the city’s non-political hiring plan.’” Shakman negotiated a hiring plan that made all City Council employees exempt positions, and now acknowledges that he made a “mistake” by exempting workers’ compensation employees.

This is not a new battle. WorkCompCentral reported problems back in August 2012, in a column entitled, “Does Chicago have the Worst-Run WC Defense Program of All Time?”

That column noted: “Please note there are about 3,000 pending lost time workers’ comp claims being managed by Ed Burke and his staff. We are advised they have one claims adjuster —yes, we said one; uno; a single WC adjuster for 3,000 claims.”

If the stakes were not so high, and the possible negative impact on people not so devastating, one would be inclined to say, “Ah, Chicago” and move on. However, we all know that thousands of claims ultimately affect hundreds of thousands of people—the claimants themselves, family members, health care professionals, employers. Indeed, the entire population of Chicagoland is being harmed, deprived of returning their fellow citizens to functioning members of society.

And the waste of taxpayer dollars when mammoth programs are run by people who are appointed because of who they know, not what they know, is mind boggling.

Chicago deserves better.

(Read more Work Comp Nation blogs here.)

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