Los Angeles County sheriff’s and fire department employees retire on disability pensions at a nearly 50percent higher rate than their counterparts in 19 other California counties, according to a report released Monday. The 73-page report by Buck Consultants comes more than two years after the Board of Supervisors ordered an investigation into whether employees were fraudulently obtaining lucrative disability pensions. The supervisors ordered the investigation after the Los Angeles Daily News, a sister publication of this newspaper, revealed that an average of 79percent of firefighters and 56 percent of sheriff’s deputies received job-related disability retirements in the decade prior to 2005. “There really is a culture of maximizing benefits,” county Risk Manager Rocky Armfield said. “And the employees are very good at it.” In the fourth case, a firefighter who retired on a disability pension started a new job within days of leaving the department. “It seems to us that the level of sophistication is higher in Los Angeles County regarding how to scam the system,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “I think it’s probably not surprising when you have an entrenched bureaucracy like this with union leadership who encourage this kind of activity.” The report found that as of June 2004, 61 percent of county safety employees retired on job-related disability pensions. In the other 19 counties, the percentage was 33 percent. The report also found that the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association applied a “more liberal standard” in deciding when to grant disability pensions, approving job- related disability pensions for 53 percent of applicants in 2003-04, compared with 18 percent in 15 other counties. Among the 35 disability pension cases reviewed, the investigators found four filed after the applicant turned 60, and 11 filed within 90 days of retirement, suggesting the employees were timing their applications to coincide with their normal retirement dates. Armfield said safety employees are well aware of the advantages of obtaining job-related disability pensions, half of which are tax-free. The job-related disability pays a minimum of 50 percent of an employee’s compensation, while a non-job-related disability pays about 33 percent. And when the employee dies, their spouse receives 100 percent of the final pay, instead of 65 percent. “So you can easily see why it would be economically wise for safety members to at least apply,” Armfield said. “There is no illegal activity in applying. They are simply seeing if they will be granted the disability, and if they are, there is a tremendous upside economically.” Also, Armfield said an “informal infrastructure” has developed over the years involving law firms, doctors and employee unions that assist safety employees late in their careers in applying for disability pensions. On the bright side, the report found the county has been able to convince a large number of employees who had filed workers’ compensation claims to come back to work on light duty. As a result, the costs associated with employees who file claims shortly before retirement have dropped from $49 million in 2003 to $37 million in 2005. Still, investigators found a common practice among county employees approaching retirement of “spiking” their final pay with unused vacation, sick leave and other one-time payments. Investigators noted it’s not difficult for employees to make injury claims, citing examples of workers injured by tripping over a file cabinet, bending under a desk, lifting a ladder and falling off a bicycle while off-duty. “The disability threshold is very, very low,” Armfield said. “It’s diminutive to the point if you apply with any good justifiable medical reason allowed under the act, there is a good chance you’ll get it.” To help reduce soaring pension costs, Buck Consulting recommended legislative changes to reform the 1937 law back to its original intent and encouraged the sheriff and fire departments to return more injured workers back to light-duty jobs. But investigators wrote that reducing the number of disability pensions will be challenging in an environment where many safety employees possess “extensive knowledge and understanding” and a “well-established external support network” to help them file for disability pensions. [email protected] (213)974-8985 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! As part of the investigation, the supervisors asked the firm to analyze 35 cases to determine if any were fraudulent. The firm found no cases of outright fraud – defined as deliberate attempts to qualify for benefits that cannot be supported by doctors. But investigators found four disability pensions whose justifications “contradicted” the original intent of a law granting disability pensions. Buck Consultants said case law concerning disability pensions has gradually allowed more employees to qualify than was originally intended by a 1937 law that still governs pensions. The law was designed to allow public employees who had become incapacitated to be replaced by capable employees. In two of the cases reviewed by Buck, the connection between the injury and the job was “minimal.” Another case involved an employee who not only received a disability retirement at an advanced age, but the reason for the disability was the “aging process.” In that case, very little of the disability was work-related.