L.A. to review 'flawed and expensive' leave policy for injured workers

City Council President Herb Wesson called L.A.'s pay policy for injured workers 'flawed and expensive'

Los Angeles' top elected officials say reforms are needed in an unusually generous injury leave policy that pays city employees more when they are out with job-related ailments than when they come to work.

The cost to taxpayers for injury leaves taken by custodians, gardeners, office managers and other non-public safety employees rose 50% in the five years that ended in January, to $18 million, The Times reported Friday.

"It's obvious that our system is flawed and expensive," City Council President Herb Wesson wrote in an email Friday afternoon. He said he would work with other city leaders to reform the program, but declined to specify what changes he will seek.

Jeff Millman, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said: "We are currently reviewing workers' compensation procedures to see how we can end these perverse financial incentives, save money for taxpayers and return our employees back to work as quickly as possible."

The Times' analysis of city payroll data found the top recipient of the policy from 2009 to 2013 was a Los Angeles Police Department clerk who was paid $170,000 for three separate yearlong absences. The first leave began after she banged her elbow on a filing cabinet, the second after she smacked her knee on a desk and the third after she said she hurt her back reaching for a phone, city records show.

Officials say that there is no indication city civilian employees' jobs have become more dangerous in recent years. But the rate at which they are claiming injuries — often sore backs and knees — has risen steadily, The Times found. And the average length of the absences climbed from just under seven weeks in 2009 to 101/2 weeks in 2013.

A key factor driving those increases, experts say, is a decades-old city policy that pays injured workers about 90% of their base salary while on leave. Because those payments are tax-free under federal and state law, employees can take home substantially more money while they are out recovering.

State law requires employers to pay civilian workers with job-related injuries 66% of their salary, tax-free, for up to a year. The idea is to keep hurt workers' take-home pay relatively stable, with the government and the employer sharing the cost. Employers are free to pay more if they choose.

Los Angeles County offers its civilian employees 70% of their salary, tax-free. Last year, county civilians took leaves at about a third the rate of their counterparts in the city, The Times found.

City Councilman Bernard Parks, one of the council's most fiscally conservative members and a frequent foe of union-backed initiatives, said he would support a motion to bring city policy more in line with state law. But he said such a measure isn't likely to win council approval because of opposition from organized labor, a major force in city elections.

Most of his council colleagues "cannot show discipline when dealing with unions and they will capitulate every time," Parks said.

Coral Itzcalli, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union, Local 721, which represents many city employees, did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the 1930s, state law has guaranteed injured police and firefighters in California 100% of their salary, tax-free.

Injury pay for sworn city employees totaled $42 million last year, and their rate of leaves has been higher in recent years than in several other large jurisdictions in the state, The Times reported in September.

Thousands of annual absences have forced the Fire Department to spend millions in overtime to keep stations staffed and left the LAPD with fewer officers on the streets.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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