Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 13, 2013

Palo Alto tries to curb disabilities among fire, police

City disputes Grand Jury finding that city has highest rate of disability retirements but agrees rate has to be lowered

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto usually likes to be a leader, but officials found little to like in a recent report by the Santa Clara County Grand Jury that stated the city has the highest rate of public-safety workers in the county who retire with disabilities.

On Wednesday, Sept. 11, the city responded to the Grand Jury's critical June report by both disputing its numbers and backing its conclusion that the city's disability rate for retirees needs to be reduced.

The city's response, which the City Council will consider Monday night, challenged the finding that 51 percent of the Palo Alto police officers and firefighters who retired over the past five years filed for "industrial disability retirement" by far the highest in the county and far above Gilroy's rate of 43 percent, the county's next highest.

In its response, the city provided statistics showing its rate for industrial disability retirements to be 34 percent, a little above the average for county jurisdictions that have both police and fire operations. The response also notes that both the firefighters and police officers have seen their rates drop since 2005, when 40.7 percent of the firefighter retirements and 45.5 percent of police retirements fell into this category.

In a media briefing Wednesday afternoon, City Manager James Keene outlined the various initiatives the city is undertaking to promote health and wellness and reduce the disability rate, though he didn't have an explanation for the wide disparity between the Grand Jury's and the city's calculation. After receiving the Grand Jury report, he said, city staff tried to inform the county about the discrepancy. By then, the Grand Jury had disbanded and the city was unable to determine how it came up with its numbers, Keene said.

According to the city, there were 62 public-safety retirements over the past year, 35 in the Fire Department and 27 in the Police Department. Of these, 21 filed for industrial disability retirement, a rate of 33.9 percent. Those who retire with disabilities receive half of their benefits tax-free according to California law, the city report stated.

Whether the real proportion of public-safety workers retiring with disabilities is a little more than half or a third, officials agree that it's way too high. Even at 34 percent, Palo Alto would rank second in the county, behind only Gilroy, according to the Grand Jury's numbers.

"We don't think 33 percent is a good number," Keene said. "We still need to get to work on it and lower it."

One reason for Palo Alto's relatively high rate may be the absence of light-duty positions in its police and fire departments. Some cities, including San Jose, offer desk jobs to workers with disabilities, the report notes. Palo Alto does not, police Lt. Zach Perron said.

"If someone can't meet the requirements of the job, they're not able to be a police officer," Perron said.

Fire Chief Eric Nickel said the range of injuries that led to recent retirement disabilities didn't follow any particular trend. These included sprains, strains and cardiac conditions.

Police officers also had a wide range of reasons for filing for disability at the time of retirement, according to the city's response. Some suffered "serious permanent disabilities," while others suffered "injuries or illnesses that were not as severe yet incapacitated the officer from performing work duties," according to the city's response.

"Although all officers completed long-term medical treatment, their injuries still precluded them from performing their public-safety-officer duties and thus were unable to continue working in their jobs on a permanent basis and therefore sought retirement," the report states.

Both departments have policies in place aimed at lowering the rate. Nickel said the Fire Department has a safety committee composed of both labor and management employees that meets regularly to review every worker-compensation claim and consider ways to make the workplace safer. It is also utilizing new technologies, including motorized gurneys, that they hope will make it easier to lift patients and eliminate a significant portion of back sprains and strains among personnel.

Nickel said he is also trying to get the department to embrace the Wellness/Fitness Initiative, a broad program jointly sponsored by labor and management unions and that includes such provisions as mandatory daily workouts. Nickel said he would like to see provisions from this initiative integrated into the next contract with the firefighters union.

The police department has had a voluntary wellness program since 2004. Participants undergo an annual "wellness check," a detailed health assessment administered by a nurse. As an incentive to participate, officers are allowed to work out while on duty on a limited basis, Perron said. The department is also allowing officers to switch to lighter gun belts and to load-bearing vests that replace gun belts and that distribute the weight of equipment throughout the body.

The police department also considers health and wellness when it makes it hiring decisions, Perron said.

"When we hire people, one of the things we look at is that we want to have someone who values health and fitness and who is already leading a healthy lifestyle," Perron said. "We want these people to be lifelong employees with us."

Recent statistics suggest that some progress has already been made. In fiscal year 2012-13, the fire department experienced an all-time low of 14 total claims for workers compensation, while the police saw its number drop from 28 to 22, according to a staff report. While this is hardly a cause of celebration, it is a welcome sign for Keene and other city leaders that Palo Alto appears to be heading in the right direction.

"The decrease in claims for police and fire substantiates that the City of Palo Alto is actively preventing injuries and providing safe work conditions; however, the goal must be to continue this trend of reduced claim numbers," the city's report states.

Another reason for the declining number of injuries, Nickel observed, could be that the fire department now consists of younger workers, thanks to a surge of retirements in the last five years.

Comments

Posted by Resident, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 12, 2013 at 12:37 am

One of my close relatives is a police officer in another city. He's not retired, but he's been on disability for a long time. I'm embarrassed to say that he's perfectly able, but where he is disability is trivial to get and generous, so he collects it. And he's by no means the only one there.

I don't mean to imply disability is a scam, or that Palo Alto is full of deadbeats. We should certainly take care of people in hazardous jobs who get hurt doing the public's work. But the whole system clearly isn't perfect, and it's good that cities should look at it periodically.


Posted by Unintended Consequences, a resident of another community
on Sep 12, 2013 at 5:38 am

The State recently implemented "Pension Reform". It sets the minimum retirement age at 57 for new hires.

The article does a good job of giving insight into what will happen over the next decade as employees are hired under this new system. The current retirement age is 50, but people generally retire after they reach that age.

The new system will have police officers and firefighters staying on until they are perhaps 60. The on duty injuries and disability retirements will skyrocket with this older population.

The Grand Jury completely missed this aspect of their investigation.


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 12, 2013 at 8:33 am

This is always a tough problem to discuss, because the information needed to fully understand the issues is typically locked up in employee health records, Any kind of cause/effect relationships can not be understood, without that sort of data.

Presumably back injuries are common for EMS/Ambulance operators, so looking to redesign the way that people are moved to the ambulances might help to reduce these injuries, as the reference in the article to motorized gurneys suggests.

Another issue to point out is that with small departments, statistics (such as the percentage of employees claiming disabilities) become somewhat problematic. Moreover, the lack of the City to provide full employment history for their retirees, rather than just the number of years on the job here in Palo Alto, makes the numbers skewed, and somewhat distorted.

However, without a yearly performance report for the Public Safety Department, the yearly occurrence of injuries can not easily be tracked from publicly-accessible documentation. Officers who claim to be fit-to-serve one day, turn in their retirement papers—claiming that they are disabled, in some way, and due post-retirement benefits for these injuries. You can't have it both ways—fit-to-serve and not-fit-to-serve at the same time. Someone is just not telling the truth.

Requiring the Public Safety Department to produce a comprehensive yearly performance report would go a long way towards providing the public the necessary information needed to understand just how big a problem there is relative to the City Management's fostering/tolerating unsafe workplace practices.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 12, 2013 at 10:44 am

> the city has the highest rate of public-safety workers in the county who retire with disabilities.

Fraud and fraud enablers on a massive scale to have this statistic nationwide - pure and simple. It's not a coincidence that by every measure that comes out Palo Alto is almost always skewed towards fraud and corruption and back-room deals that the public has no say about. What is it that keeps the real story from being investigated, broken, and what keeps our city constantly hiring these expensive do-nothing people paid by the public while the public does not feel it ever benefits from it. Let's NOT hire an expensive PR firm to fix the image of Palo Alto, NO - let's figure out a way to get at the real problem. I think the problem is that no one that will talk is close enough to the inside of this broken system.


Posted by Cid Young, a resident of another community
on Sep 12, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Regarding Initiatives:
"City Manager James Keene outlined the various initiatives the city is undertaking to promote health and wellness and reduce the disability rate, though he didn't have an good explanation for the wide disparity between the Grand Jury's and the city's calculation."

It sounds like the City is embarrassed and is trying to dispute the exceptionally high numbers.

I can tell you what Private Industry used as an "initiative" to battle this vile practice of a well-compensated employee working, and them claiming a disability against one's employer...
They hired a discrete private investigator, who documented a neighbor of mine (claiming a back-related workman's comp. disability against Chevron) while he was out in his driveway washing his boat, pulling into the driveway with heavy bags of groceries which were then miraculously transported to the upstairs kitchen from the driveway without any assistance, etc.

Believe it or not, he ended up serving time in San Quentin after his workman's compensation fraud trial ended. I was told by a neighbor that he even tried to complain of "back pain" while being housed at the "Big House" on the taxpayer's dime. SHEEZE!
If the City of Palo Alto wants to diminish their high rates of disability retirements, they need to publicize the private investigator tactic, to at the very least wash out the not-so-bold deliberate fakers milking the system. There will always be some legitimate claims, as well as, some emboldened to take the chance they won't be watched and videotaped.


Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 12, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I personally know several people who ski, play tennis & golf, do adventure travel, enjoy doing home renovation projects requiring physical strength & agility who "retired" from their jobs while on disability. 2 were firemen, 2 were airline employees, and 1 was a policeman. A couple have admitted that they aren't really "disabled" but got bigger pensions, earlier, by claiming that they are. "Stress" is always a good excuse.

Why not switch these people to desk jobs? I also think that firefighters, EMTs, and non-desk policemen should be required to maintain healthy fitness levels. Most people could outrun some of the borderline obese "safety officers" I see around our communities. I wouldn't depend on them to assist me if I needed help.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2013 at 7:50 pm

According to another paper today covering the same story, the average retirement (and that glorious pension) age for public safety officers in Palo Alto is currently 49.5.

How is that even possible?


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 12, 2013 at 8:27 pm

> According to another paper today covering the same story,
> the average retirement (and that glorious pension) age
> for public safety officers in Palo Alto is currently 49.5.

According to this CalPERS document:
Web Link

CalPERS people can retire at age 50, with a payout of 3% per year of service. CalPERS people can also buy 5 years of credit, so that their actual number of years of service could be 20%-25% greater than they actually served.

Assuming that some significant number of Public Safety people are taking early retirements for disability reasons, then that would bring the average service time down to under 50.


Posted by Mayfield Child, a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 13, 2013 at 2:24 am

Two things on my mind right now...
One:
you really hit a nerve telling us that the City intends on reducing the disability rules for on the job disabilities. When someone cries wolf, it usually is apparent by a certified doctor, which should be enough of following the person under cover to try to prove differently. My father worked for the fire department in Palo Alto and was ill with lung and tb problems~ which he did NOT have when he was hired on years before. He loved his job but had to fight the City for disability pay, taking them to a high court in San Francisco to do it. AND he finally won a landmark case for himself and other City workers at that time. Just because a person isn't dragging their feet or bleeding 24-7, other people think there is something fishy going on. They are so wrong.

Two..There SHOULD BE a cap on how long someone ( those in our fire and police departments) can serve as a public servant. Just like the President of the United States~ even he has a time limit!!! Older workers in the fire and police departments will have less of a tendency of severe disabling injuries. When a man or woman gets to "the retirement age", they should be offered a job in a different capacity that does not require so much stress, which is one more reason for such "early retirement" cases happen......older people need change...


Posted by Meanwhile..., a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2013 at 3:11 pm

ack at the farm, I have a painful, debilitating neurological disease that is literally eating the myelin sheath off my nerves!

But I have been denied Social Security Disability twice, because I was self-employed, and the SSDI people feel I did not make enough money while self-employed. Also, we no longer have the tax records from the late eighties to prove otherwise.

Even if I were approved for SSDi, I was Informed that I would have to go TWO YEARS without medical insurance before I could get MediCal!! In which time my phrenic nerve would probably de-myelinate and I would stop breathing.

So, I really truly cannot work, my husband's employer is small enough to get away without giving employee health insurance, and all these ex-cops and ex-firefighters get generous disability benefits while physically fit!

Ain't life a b----?


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