February 15, 2011

59% Of Providence Fire Pensions are "Disability"

Marc Comtois

WPRI reports:

Accidental disability pensions awarded to Providence firefighters will account for more than half the $29 million the department spends on pension payments this year, according to an analysis of payroll records by WPRI.com.

City records show 438 firefighters or their families got a taxpayer-funded pension payment in January, the most recent month for which figures are available, and 258 of those were classified as accidental disability pensions – which are not taxed.

That's quite a disability rate.
Disability pensions for former firefighters will cost the city $15.5 million in 2011 if all those payments continue for the rest of the year. That’s more than the total for every other category.

Regular fire pensions will cost $8.7 million, followed by pensions for accidental disability leading to death, $2.1 million; fire widows, $1.5 million; accidental death, $942,708; court-awarded payments, $229,719; and ordinary disability, $160,056.

In the police department, by contrast, accidental disability pensions will only make up $7.1 million of the $23.2 million total bill for pensions this year, or about 30%. A total of 639 police officers or their families got pension payments in January.

As WPRI's Ted Nesi reports, new Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare will be taking a look at pension costs and other areas to cut costs.

Many of us are grateful for the job our firefighters do and do not begrudge them the salary and benefits they are paid for being willing to put their life on the line. But these stories undermine the accrued goodwill. There really can be no doubt that there is fraud going on here and that wink-and-a-nod, retire-on-disability scenarios are happening. Firefighters need to realize (or more of them, anyway) that it is not OK to look the other way when somebody just happens to slip and fall on the day before his retirement. Let's hope Commissioner Pare cleans up the firehouse for the sake of the taxpayers and for the good men and women of the Providence Fire Department who play it straight.

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I've spoken with a Providence police sergeant about this and while he would not say a bad word about the fire dept, he did say that the disability pensions are a matter of pride, in that the police have a general feeling that you don't take one unless you truly are disabled. He even said that doing otherwise is no different that the people he arrests on the street.

Also, I'd bet that this isn't so much a case of a slip and fall on the last day of work but more of a build-up of injuries over 20-30 years that when you're 5 years away from retirement it's "it hurts, but I can work through it", but then with 6 months to do, with that still nagging pain it's "Doc, this injury really hurts, I can't keep doing my job at my age with all these injuries."

It would also be interesting to see which doctors signed the paperwork on the permanent disabilities. I'm guessing that a few names would come up quite often.

Posted by: Patrick at February 15, 2011 11:33 AM

Disability pension is a matter of "pride"? After the stories we have read about "disability" being defined as slightly elevated blood pressure or mild clinical depression?

"Chutzpah" is more like it.

Unionization of public sector employees is a scandal itself. It's no surprise that scandalous behavior is a standard feature of this system.

Posted by: BobN at February 15, 2011 12:36 PM

59%? Must be a tough job.

Posted by: michael at February 15, 2011 12:49 PM

Bob, I had a feeling someone would read it the wrong way. It's a matter of pride that the police say they won't take one if they don't deserve one. They won't use the "aches and pains" of the job as an excuse for a disability pension. If they get legitimately disabled on the job that's one thing, but by the time we hit 50 or 60, we all have something wrong and his feeling is the PPD generally won't try to use that.

Posted by: Patrick at February 15, 2011 1:04 PM

Michael, I agree. So is being a soldier. In 2008, of the "755,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars....the VA says more than 181,000 are collecting disability benefits." That's 24%.


I know that there are legit complaints that combat soldiers' disability claims are being held up, too. So maybe they will approach the 59% of Providence firefighters, one day.

Posted by: Marc at February 15, 2011 2:34 PM

Shameful, disgraceful, and totally indefensible.

Posted by: Dan at February 15, 2011 2:41 PM

Marc, I am in no way comparing what I do to a combat soldier. I know many Iraq and Afghanistan vets. My brother spent a year in Iraq at the height of things, and leaves next week for a year in Afghanistan. The people there do a great job for the time they are there. Most never see combat or fire their weapon.

Disabilities are near impossible to get if you are not disabled. Three doctors, chosen by the city do a thorough evaluation before a disability claim is approved. If you are not disabled, you do not get a disability pension, simple as that.

It is a long grind on a fire department. The chance for injury increases simply due to the amount of time doing the job. Are there scammers? Absolutely, but they are pariahs in the ranks. Those who find a way to beat the system are stealing from us, and that does not fly.

Posted by: michael at February 15, 2011 3:36 PM

***SCREEEEEECH*** (the sound of nails on a chalkboard fills the hall)

Y'all know me. Know how I earn a livin'. I'll catch these birds for you, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad organization. Not like going down the pond chasin' bluegills and tommycods. This union - they'll go after you whole. Slander, libel, identity theft - we've seen it before. We gotta do this quick, that'll root out the fraud, put your pension fund back on a solvent basis. But it's not gonna be pleasant. I value my neck more than a pretty penny. I'll find them for 200, but I'll catch them, and prosecute them, for 400k. But you've gotta make up your minds, Rhode Island. If you want to stay solvent, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter. I don't want no volunteers, there's just too many politicians on this island. 400 thousand for me, the private investigators, and the 2 out-of-state federal prosecutors I'll be bringing with me. For that- you'll get your headlines, your pension funds, the whole damn thing.

Posted by: Dan at February 15, 2011 3:41 PM

All right. I'll bite. What are the disability pension rates from around the state and region? Can it be that, in the Northeast, firefighters generally have 3 chances in 5 of eventually being permanently disabled?

Posted by: chuckR at February 15, 2011 4:23 PM

Michael, The system you outlined may be true now, but it wasn't always the case (as explained in the WPRI report). Also, upon re-reading, sorry if my military veteran anecdote came across as some kind of "gotcha", that wasn't the intent. (I also realize that not all vets saw combat, which is why I didn't use all vets, just those from Iraq/Afghanistan). I just find it hard to believe that 59% are legitimately disabled, even taking into account the wear and tear you explain. I'd argue that we all could come up with wear and tear--without belittling it, carpal tunnel for an administrative assistant comes to mind. But then again, not everyone is collectively bargained and in a pension system that provides such a vehicle (for good or ill). There isn't a "disability" 401K, after all.

Posted by: Marc at February 15, 2011 4:29 PM

I can tell you having witnessed it myself, not too many years ago communities used disabilities to rid themselves of problem employees. While it was a win-win for the local administration and the employee, the taxpayers unknowingly were getting screwed.

Posted by: Max Diesel at February 15, 2011 5:09 PM

Marc, Social Security disability is abused to the point of absurdity. The general population takes full advantage of that system, without making any sacrifices.

Posted by: michael at February 15, 2011 5:41 PM
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