Lawsuit Pits Businesses vs. Pritzker in COVID-19 Legal Battle

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announces a shelter-in-place rule to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus, during a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo / Charles Rex Arbogast)Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announces a shelter-in-place rule to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus, during a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo / Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission will hold an emergency meeting on Monday to withdraw a temporary, emergency rule put in place earlier this month that ensures “first responders and essential front-line workers, who are most susceptible to exposure to COVID-19, are afforded the full protections of the Workers’ Compensation Act in the event they are exposed to or contract the virus.”

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The rule presumes that workers who test positive for the coronavirus got it through their workplace. But Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Saturday said that Monday’s action should not be taken as acknowledgement that commissioners overstepped their rulemaking authority, and indicated the commission will in the near future adopt a modified version with a similar goal.

“What they are now looking to do is to simply revisit it, and see what they can do, what they feel like, you know, is appropriate. And then they intend to reissue an order,” Pritzker said in defense of the commission.

A Sangamon County Circuit Court judge on Thursday issued a temporary hold on enforcement of the rule.

A coalition of dozens of business organizations, led by the powerful Illinois Manufacturers and Illinois Retail Merchants associations, are suing over the rule change.

The suit alleges that the commission exceeded its rulemaking authority, and that such a major action could only be taken by the state legislature.

Illinois’ General Assembly has not met since the coronavirus crisis, and there is no indication when lawmakers may return to Springfield.

Business leaders have been furious over the rule, and say that at a time that many companies are struggling to survive due to the governor’s stay-at-home order, they cannot afford to take on workers’ compensation claims when there's no proof a worker got COVID-19 while on the job.

“Essential businesses across Illinois are doing all they can to protect workers while also meeting unprecedented demand for food, medical supplies, protective equipment and other important services needed during this pandemic,” the business groups’ attorney Scott Cruz said in a statement Wednesday. “At a time when many are waiting for relief from the federal and state government in an effort to make payroll and retain workers, they will now be forced to pay for additional medical and salary costs regardless of whether an employees’ illness was contracted outside of the workplace.”

Union leaders say it “shouldn’t shock anyone that the corporate community opposes a policy decision that helps workers.”

“From the beginnings of the pandemic, our institutions have had one common thread holding communities together – our front line workers. Whether it is the health care workers and first responders trying to stay even or one step ahead of a lightning-fast disease, or the grocery store clerks, public employees and other essential support people, they have not blinked in trying to keep us safe and ready to begin a recovery,” the Illinois AFL-CIO said in a statement.

“Let’s defend the workers standing between us and chaos. We hope the business community interests that filed a lawsuit challenging the ability of sick workers to have speedy access to Workers’ Compensation rethink their position.”

Workers compensation commissioners justified implementing the changes on April 16 on an emergency basis, without going through the regular rulemaking process that can take months, citing “the uncertainty associated with the prior rules may put an individual in the untenable position of balancing their need to receive a continued paycheck to support their family and making the correct decision to miss work and self-isolate and self-quarantine. Without the emergency rule, individuals may feel forced to act against the public interest, potentially creating an even more dire hazard than the State already faces.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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