Special Report

Generous L.A. city policy rewards workers who take long injury leaves

L.A. city employees who take long injury leaves benefit financially from generous policy

Los Angeles Police Department clerk Demeturius Matthews took a full year off for an on-the-job injury after she banged her elbow into a metal filing cabinet. She didn't break any bones, city records show, but a chiropractor declared her temporarily disabled.

She took a second year off after smacking her knee into her desk. A third yearlong leave began after she said she felt pain between her shoulder blades while reaching for her phone.

Matthews collected $170,000 in salary while on those leaves, and increased her take-home pay by thousands of dollars during the time off under an unusually generous Los Angeles city leave policy for civilian workers.

Under that program, the average injured worker is paid nearly 90% of base pay, and at least one employee received 100%, a recent city audit shows.

Because injury-leave pay is tax-free under federal and state law, employees can take home substantially more money while recovering than they would if they had gone to work.

The cost to taxpayers of civilian leaves has increased 50% in the five years that ended in January, to $18 million, a Times investigation found.

There's no indication that the work of custodians, gardeners, office managers and other non-public-safety employees is getting more dangerous. But for reasons officials say aren't clear, the rate at which they are claiming injuries and the duration of their leaves are both on the rise, The Times found.

Among California's five largest cities, San Diego is the only one other than L.A. that permits civilian employees to collect so much of their salary while on job-related injury leave. San Jose pays 85%, for more limited periods. San Francisco and Fresno each pay 66%, in line with what most employees at private companies receive while on workers' compensation leaves.

L.A. County, the only local government in the state larger than the city, pays its civilian employees a fixed 70% of their salary during injury absences.

County civilian workers took injury leaves at about one-third the rate of their City Hall counterparts in 2013, a Times analysis of payroll records found. And the county outlay of $8.6 million in injury leave salaries last year was less than half the city's total, despite the fact that the county has more than twice as many employees.

Giving workers more money while they stay at home to recover from injuries — sore backs and knees are the most common — creates "a perverse incentive" to file more claims and extend absences, said City Controller Ron Galperin, the city's elected fiscal watchdog.

"I'd like to believe that the vast majority of the people who make a claim have a legitimate basis for it," he said. "But you have to look at the numbers and wonder."

The city chose to pay injured civilian workers most of their salary decades ago, out of a desire to align their benefits with those offered to public safety employees under state law.

Since the Depression, California's labor code has guaranteed police and firefighters 100% of their pay, with no tax liability, for up to a year when they are disabled by an on-the-job injury. Essentially, it's a special benefit for having to step into harm's way.

The Times reported in September that police and firefighters account for most of Los Angeles' so-called Injured on Duty or IOD, costs — more than $42 million last year. The rate of claims at the city has been higher than at other local agencies in the state. The thousands of annual absences forced the Fire Department to spend millions on overtime to keep fire stations staffed and left the LAPD with fewer officers patrolling the street, The Times found.

In 1965, the City Council voted to pay injured civilian workers 90% of their salary, tax-free.

Over the years, city financial analysts warned that the policy was too generous compared to other local governments, noting that employees were collecting extra take-home pay while not working.

In 1994, the council sought to correct the problem by offering injured civilians their full salary but subtracting mandatory pension contributions and the amount "normally" withheld for federal and state income taxes.

But there was a catch. The reform allowed employees to reduce the amount subtracted by the city by changing their tax withholding exemptions. That, in turn, increases the employee's non-taxable income.

The effect, according to a survey by city auditors last year, is that pay for injured civilians averaged 89% of their salary.

"The original intent of the 1994 change has not been met," said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana.

Matthews, the LAPD clerk, declined to be interviewed, and her attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Among the other top civilian recipients of injury pay was a Bureau of Sanitation office manager who spent two years on leave for stress and took home roughly $15,000 extra. A police dispatcher at the port missed two years after falling out of her chair and took home about $20,000 more while on leave, The Times analysis of city payroll data found.

Alex Rossi, Los Angeles County's workers' compensation administrator, said more-generous injury programs generally encourage longer, more costly leaves.

"It is much more difficult to bring somebody back if they're making more money off work," he said.

He cited the county's own experience. In 2000, the state Legislature reclassified hundreds of civilian probation officers as sworn public safety workers, Rossi said, making them eligible to receive their full salary, tax-free, while on injury leaves.

The job didn't get more dangerous, Rossi said, but between 1999 and 2001 the county's payouts for injury leaves soared 400%, to $6.8 million — roughly where they remain.

Coral Itzcalli, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union 721, which represents city and county employees, said she doubted the county's civilian injury leave rate is as low as its data indicate. But if city workers are claiming more injuries, she said, it's most likely because they're "engaged in potentially dangerous blue collar jobs," including trash collection and street repair.

Steve Nyblom, a manager for the county's Risk Management Branch, said the county also has a large public works department with employees doing similar manual labor.

He argued that the county's civilian work force is at greater risk of injury because it includes about 20,000 healthcare workers at county-owned hospitals and clinics. Nurses and orderlies are among the most injury-prone employees in the country, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show.

The county would like to take credit for fostering safer working conditions and better morale, Nyblom said.

But he added that wouldn't begin to account for the disparities in cost and frequency of injury leaves between the city and the county.

The average outlay for civilian injury leaves by the city last year was $13,352 compared to $8,494 in the county, The Times found.

"You can't explain a differential this big without looking at motivations to file claims and stay out, and the motive here appears to be financial," he said.

There's another difference between the city and county leave programs that increases costs for L.A. city taxpayers and lowers the county's injury leave rate.

The county exercises an option, permitted under state law, to require injured workers to use sick days or vacation time for the first three days after they have been declared temporarily disabled by their doctor. The waiting period is waived if the injury is serious enough to require hospitalization or an absence of more than two weeks.

Such three-day restrictions are "intended to provide some motivation for an employee to return to work as soon as possible if the injury is not too significant," according to the California Workers' Compensation Handbook, a training manual for workers' compensation administrators.

The city, however, pays Injured on Duty benefits from day one. Last year, just over 200 of its 1,353 civilian workers who took IOD leaves were out three days or less, according to payroll data. The policy had only a tiny effect — less than half a percent — on the overall cost of the injury leaves.

But it allowed city workers to preserve hundreds of vacation and sick days, which they can cash out at retirement — based on their final, higher pay rate.

The generosity of the city's program encourages some employees to take leaves for relatively minor injuries and stay out longer than medically necessary, Santana said.

"It's almost like, if you're not doing it, you're the guy who is being dumb," he said. "Even honest people are susceptible to that kind of behavior."

Both Santana and Galperin say the city's civilian injury leave program should be reexamined and brought into line with the more limited benefits spelled out in state law.

But city officials say that would require renegotiating dozens of labor contracts with city unions.

If a city employee is out for more than a year, he or she is supposed to be switched to the state standard 66% of salary for up to another year. But that rarely happens, city data show. Most employees return to work before a year is up. Others have avoided reductions in income by filing a new claim for a different ailment, which resets the clock and provides up to an additional year of higher take-home pay.

More than 150 city civilian employees took in excess of a year of injury leave from 2009 through 2013, city payroll data show.

Among them was Matthews, now 52.

In October 2009, after she hurt her elbow backing into the file cabinet, a chiropractor declared her temporarily disabled due to carpal tunnel syndrome, state Workers' Compensation Appeals Board records show. That began her first year of injury leave.

She came back to work for just over six months before she "slammed her knee into a desk while getting up," according to a May 2011 claim that began her second year off.

In early 2013 she complained of a "poor ergonomic set-up" after injuring herself reaching for the phone and filed a claim for cumulative work-related trauma, beginning her third year of paid leave.

Because of her frequent injury leaves — she'd also taken eight months off after she fell out of an office chair in 2002 — a city claims administrator reported her to LAPD fraud investigators, according to city records. A law enforcement source confirmed the inquiry remains open.

Matthews returned to work this summer, city payroll records show.


Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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