SPRINGFIELD — In another sign of Illinois' continuing budget woes, the state has apparently run out of money to pay injury settlements to its own employees.
Officials began notifying injured workers Wednesday that claims would not be paid until next October because of a shortfall in the fund.
"Things will hopefully be improving," said Justin DeJong, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which administers the state's worker compensation program.
It's not the first time the state has delayed paying money it owes to individuals and businesses during a cash crunch, but observers say it's unfair to target people who are injured on the job.
"It's a serious situation for people who have been injured," Springfield attorney Gloria Morris said. "It's just an unfortunate occurrence that the state has a habit of balancing the budget on the backs of the people who can least afford it."
Morris, who handles workers' compensation cases for the Springfield-based Kanoski & Associates law firm, said it is not uncommon for the state to run out of money to pay its workers' compensation claims.
But she said waiting 10 months for the state to begin paying puts her clients in an "extreme bind."
"They are not happy," Morris said. "That's a long time to wait."
The problem only affects state workers who are owed injury settlements. Private employers pay their own injury claims.
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DeJong would not identify an exact date for when the payments could resume because there remains a chance that new money could be found for the program in the coming months. "We can't pinpoint a specific date for payment," DeJong said.
The General Assembly could approve more money for the program when lawmakers reconvene in early January.
State Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat, the point man in the Illinois House on budget matters, said Democrats would be willing to consider a supplemental budget if the governor requests one.
In the interim, he said the administration has the ability to transfer some money within various agencies to plug holes in the budget.
"It's certainly not a good situation," Hannig said. "It will create some difficulty for some people."
DeJong said CMS began the fiscal year on July 1 with $60 million in the worker compensative fund and already has added $12 million.
The shortfall comes just six months after Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation to overhaul the state's workers' compensation system for the first time in two decades.
The new law raises injury awards but also boosts the enforcement of potentially fraudulent claims.
DeJong said the shortfall might be due to increased costs associated with the changes implemented this spring. "The claims coming in now are higher than usual," DeJong said.