Monday, January 30, 2006 | A couple of weeks ago, I got a hold of the final report of a group called the City Manager’s Committee to Review the Disability Retirement System.
You might remember that this was the committee that was “near-unanimous in its desire to stop fraud and ‘double dipping’ by recipients” of the disability retirement benefit, which the city grants to some workers who are injured on the job.
And you might remember how (interesting? absurd?) funny we found it that the group couldn’t find unanimity in its opposition to something that was called “double dipping” and “fraud.”
There was more. The report found that of all the people collecting pensions from the city of San Diego, 22.4 percent of them are collecting a disability benefit. For public safety – firefighters and police officers – the numbers are much higher. Thirty-five percent of all their retirees leave with a disability retirement. Join the police department with two buddies and one of you is apparently destined to leave permanently injured.
The city’s pension system currently vastly underestimates these numbers. Based on the actual rate of disability retirements, in 2004 an advisor to the city’s pension system – the former actuary from the firm Gabriel, Roeder, Smith and Co. – recommended that the pension system increase its assumption accordingly. The city, according to the actuary, was underestimating how many people would be asking for disability retirements by 79 percent.
If the retirement system does change that assumption, you can expect the pension system’s deficit – already an overwhelming figure – to climb accordingly.
But after you get through the statistics and their implications, there was one part of the report that seems to be continually troubling to the people who read it: The acknowledgement that the city has no procedures in place to ensure that if a person leaves city service with a disability retirement, that they won’t go work in a similar capacity somewhere else.
An employee whose application for a disability retirement is approved can collect 50 percent of their highest salary for the rest of their lives.
The benefit is there as a safety net to ensure that if an on-the-job injury renders an employee unable to do the job in the future, he or she is taken care of.
It’s not there to subsidize that now-former employee’s new career. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. Nothing stops an employee from getting a disability retirement from the city and going on work – even in their same capacity – at another agency.
It’s this practice that retirement system officials call “double dipping.”
“The disability benefit the city has created and negotiated with the unions allows double dipping where an applicant can collect disability from the city and immediately go get another job and receive salary while receiving disability,” said Dick Vortmann, a member of the above-mentioned committee, a one-time member of the city’s pension board and the recently retired CEO of National Steel and Shipbuilding Co.
And we’ve heard from others.
Lisa Foster, a former deputy city attorney who is now in private practice, used to argue the city’s side on a number of disability retirement applications.
“If an employee retires from city service with a disability, there’s nothing in the code that prevents them from going to work at another agency and doing a comparable job,” Foster said. “Once a person has gotten a disability they can do whatever they want to do.”
But the concern isn’t just from them.
Even the police officers’ representative on the city’s pension board, while clear that he didn’t know of any specific cases, said he would support implementing procedures to stop the double dipping.
“If you retire from here as a permanently disabled police officer, and we find you are working as a police officer in another state, in my opinion, that’s fraud,” said Sgt. Mark Sullivan, an officer in the police department’s vice squad. Sullivan represents the police on the board of administration of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System.
Sullivan, like most of the cops and firefighters who I talked to about this, however, make it clear that they’re speaking of people who leave with a disability retirement and go on to do other similar jobs. And this is an important point, because a police officer, for example, who leaves the force may not be disabled at all from other, even more lucrative, forms of employment.
How does that work? Well, a police officer can get a disability retirement if he or she proves that they can’t do the job of a police officer – run, shoot, you know, protect us.
So, although a police officer with just a desk job may not be running and shooting so much anymore, he or she is expected to if, for example, they’re at the bank and somebody pulls out a gun.
An injury, then, that wouldn’t necessarily hamper them from doing a desk job is worthy of a permanent disability retirement from the police department because, in the event somebody pulls a gun out at the bank, they won’t be able to physically act as a police officer should.
“The chief needs to know that anyone in the force can act if a situation arises. Like during the Cedar Fire – every able-bodied officer was out there on the line working for a week,” Sullivan said.
It used to be that a person who retired from the city with a disability could, indeed, get a job somewhere else, but their disability pension was lowered incrementally for every dollar they earned from a new employer.
That “income offset” was removed in the city’s negotiations with its employee unions.
As the city and its mayor prepare for a new round of negotiations with its employee unions, they may have an opportunity to address this and other nuances of the disability retirement system.
The city’s second-in-command, COO Ronne Froman, recently told KPBS’ Gloria Penner that the disability retirement benefit “was never intended for people to go off and take that disability and do other jobs, especially in the same field.”
Exactly. Vortmann seconds the notion.
“[The disability retirement] is a safety net to the employee. It is an expensive proposition to the city’s taxpayers to pay someone for the rest of their life if they become disabled,” Vortmann said. “It is a nice safety net for an individual to have. But does it make sense for the taxpayer to give this benefit and then have the disabled person go out and get another job while receiving disability?”
No it doesn’t. Not even for cops. If they can’t work for the city in the capacity for which they were hired, and they got that injury on the job or in job training, they deserve to fall into a safety net. We’ll pay for their pain and their service.
In exchange, they should stop working. If they go back to work somewhere else, they should stop getting at least a portion of their disability.
Taking a disability retirement should not be an attractive financial option for employees.
Scott Lewis oversees Voice‘s commentary section. Please contact him directly at