L.A. audits: Costly police, firefighter workers' comp claims avoidable

L.A. is paying up to $28 million per year for what amount to preventable injuries of police and firefighters

Los Angeles police and firefighters work in a culture that encourages filing "excessive" workers' compensation claims, according to a pair of city audits released Thursday, and taxpayers are doling out up to $28 million per year for what amount to preventable injuries.

The majority of injuries claimed by firefighters in recent years occurred while doing things other than responding to emergencies, including maintaining equipment, playing racquetball and preparing food at their fire stations, according to one of the audits by City Controller Ron Galperin.

L.A. police, meanwhile, are paid for on-the-job injuries more often than officers in comparable departments, the other audit found, at least in part because other departments don't recognize sports injuries as "job-related."

In all, two-thirds of city firefighters and 60% of police officers filed an on-the-job injury claim in the last three years, the auditors found, and nearly half of those employees have filed more than one claim during that time.

"We must get these spiraling costs under control," Galperin said.

The city audits come months after a Times investigation found steep increases in payments to injured police and firefighters, who receive 100% of their salaries, tax-free, for up to a year while off work recovering from injuries they say are job-related.

Only a small percentage of claims in recent years were attributed to injuries suffered fighting fires or confronting combative suspects, The Times found. The most common cause was "cumulative trauma," an umbrella term for medical problems — sore backs, strained knees, carpal tunnel syndrome — that are not linked to a specific on-the-job injury.

A disproportionate amount of injury pay went to employees who filed consecutive claims, reporting a new injury just as a previous leave was about to end, The Times found.

The controller's audits largely echoed those findings and criticized the departments for failing to pay enough attention to the causes of mundane ailments.

"The departments do an admirable job of preventing injuries in the line of fire," said controller spokesman Lowell Goodman. "They need to focus on smaller, common and preventable injuries that, added together, cost the city millions of dollars."

In September, The Times reported that one of the city's biggest recipients of injury benefits was a fire captain who was on leave at least 18 times, including extended absences after hurting himself playing handball, basketball and racquetball at the fire station for Los Angeles International Airport. Between 2009 and 2013, he collected $242,500, tax-free, while out recovering from claimed injuries.

A Los Angeles Police Department officer recently was granted injury leave after he hurt himself bench pressing 400 pounds at the Police Olympics in Las Vegas, The Times reported last year.

The city audits found that workers' compensation costs for sworn employees have increased by 35% over the last five years to $141 million in 2014, including salary payments while the employees were off work, medical bills and other related expenses.

Surveys sent to police officers by the auditors showed that 45% agreed there are an "excessive" number of workers' compensation claims filed at the department, whereas a third of firefighters believed that "questionable" claims had been filed by their colleagues.

Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said "changing culture takes time" but promised to use the audit as a "road map to addressing this very important issue." He blamed some of the excess costs on delays in city approval for medical treatment needed by injured firefighters before they can get back to work.

The numbers in the audits "sound overwhelming," said Sandy Jo MacArthur, assistant police chief. She agreed that the LAPD, which has been focused on preventing violent injuries to its officers, should do more to prevent sore backs and knees — by far the most expensive claims.

Not all sports-related injuries suffered by police officers are deemed job-related, MacArthur added, noting that officers hurt in boxing matches against the county Sheriff's Department are not covered.

Basketball, racquetball, jogging and wrestling are on a list of approved activities the department sent to The Times last year.

The LAPD also has a "robust system" for investigating potential fraud, MacArthur said, but a department spokesman declined to say how many employees have been fired, suspended or otherwise disciplined for workers' compensation abuse in the last year.

Three department employees profiled in The Times' reports still have their jobs, said department spokesman Andrew Smith. They include an officer who moonlighted as a scuba instructor while on leave for a hurt shoulder, and a clerk who took three yearlong leaves for injuries — a banged knee, hurt elbow and sore back — that she contended she suffered at the office.

The police and fire departments are shielded from the full cost of workers' compensation claims because they don't have to pay the medical bills, the auditors found. Those costs, nearly $85 million over the last four years, are covered by a separate city fund.

The auditors recommended that the departments be made to pay medical bills out of their own budgets because "management may not be sufficiently aware of, or held accountable for, the impact of rising claims and costs."

Last year, fire officials told The Times they were spending more than $51,000 per day — or nearly $19 million annually — on overtime to cover shifts left vacant by firefighters out with injuries.

At the Police Department, where overtime has been severely restricted, the rising number of injury leaves has meant fewer officers on the street, officials said.

During the Great Depression, California legislators granted 100% pay for injured public safety employees, to ensure that those protecting the public wouldn't hesitate to chase a criminal or run into a burning building for fear of losing their livelihood.

But the design of the program invites abuse, city officials across the state told The Times. Because injury pay is exempt from federal and state income taxes, the employees typically take home significantly more money when they're not working. And time spent on leave counts toward pension benefits.

That creates a financial incentive to file injury claims for relatively minor ailments and to stay out as long as possible, experts said.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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