Study Shows Race-Based Disparity in Illinois Workers’ Compensation Awards

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health have released a study that shows workers’ compensation settlements awarded to white, non-Hispanic construction workers in Illinois are, on average, higher than those award Hispanic and black construction workers with similar injuries.

The difference between average compensation levels for the two groups was approximately $6,000.

The researchers cross-referenced medical records from the Illinois Department of Public Health and data from the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. They evaluated 1,039 cases occurring between 2000 and 2005.

In order to accurately compare settlements with respect to a single variable—race—researchers had to control for other variables that are known to influence the amount awarded in workers’ compensation claims. These include wage rates, the severity and type of injuries, length of disability, percentage of partial permanent disability, and whether the claimant was represented by an attorney. After adjusting data to account for these factors, researchers found a significantly higher average settlement amount for white workers.

The study was purely statistical, and an examination of possible causes of the disparity was outside its scope. Still, the lead author offered two possible explanations.

“It’s really not clear why this is happening. One explanation is that there is some systemic bias or prejudices occurring within the system,” said Lee Friedman, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at UIC. “Or, it could be that the level of information and knowledge about how the system works — and what can actually be litigated, disputed, or requested for compensation — might vary by ethnic group.”

Friedman also speculated that the average white worker may tend to take more time off for a given injury than the average black or Hispanic worker with a similar injury, which would result in greater compensation for lost wages.

Friedman also commented on the 2011 overhaul to the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

“With the new law… there was a lot of house cleaning that occurred within the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission,” he said. “They’ve hired a whole new staff. It might have a very important effect on the potential disparities that are occurring between workers based on ethnicity.”

The study was published in the October issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, based in Silver Spring, Md., in cooperation with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, funded the study through a grant to the UIC School of Public Health.

Robert Briskman is a Chicago workers’ compensation attorney and Chicago workers compensation lawyer with Briskman Briskman & Greenberg. To learn more call 1.877.595.4878 or visit

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