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 a 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."
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.
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 and carpal tunnel syndrome — that are not linked to a specific on-the-job injury.
A disproportionate amount of injury pay was going to employees who filed consecutive claims, reporting a new injury just as a previous leave is about to end, The Times found.
The controller's audits largely echoed those findings, and sharply 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," controller spokesman Lowell Goodman said. "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, in all, 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 45% agreed that there is an "excessive" number of workers' compensation claims filed at the department, while a third of firefighters believed "questionable" claims had been filed by their colleagues.
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."
The departments suffer in other ways, however.
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 meant fewer officers on the street, officials said.
California legislators granted 100% pay for injured public safety employees during the Great Depression 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 perverse financial incentive to file injury claims for relatively minor ailments and to stay out as long as possible, experts said.