62. First Workers' Compensation Law in Illinois (1911)

Background: On November 13, 1909, a fire at the Cherry Coal Mine in Cherry, Illinois killed 259 miners. It was the latest in a series of large-scale industrial accidents across the nation during the Progressive Era. In response, the Illinois General Assembly created an employee liability commission, charged with reviewing the problems of industrial accidents and assessing equitable methods for assigning liability and compensation for such accidents. However, the commission, made up of both employers and laborers, could not come up with proposed legislation on compensation and liability bills. At the same time, legislation attempting to deal with these issues in other states was being declared unconstitutional by the courts.

The Document: Republican Senator James Henson, a union bricklayer from Decatur, introduced Senate Bill 283, which later became Enrolled Law 16353. Only the first two pages of the bill are shown here. The bill created the state's first Workers' Compensation Law and made Illinois only the second state in the nation with such a law. The bill defined which industries fell under the law, which injuries could be compensated and what actions required compensation. The bill also provided a formula to determine compensation amount. Under the legislation, a company had the option not to participate in the system, but by failing to do so, it could face increased liability in the courts. The Senate passed the bill on March 23, 1911 but it faced strong opposition in the House where it was amended 23 times before being passed. The Senate approved the changes to the bill and on June 10, Governor Charles Deneen signed the bill into law. That same day, however, he vetoed a companion bill on employer liability that would have removed some traditional protections employers had in liability cases.

Note: The state's Workers' Compensation Law has been amended many times since 1911. Enrolled Law 16353 is available at the Illinois State Archives as part of Secretary of State Record Series 103.030, "Enrolled Acts of the General Assembly.