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.