Would it hurt City Hall to look into rise in worker injury claims?

Some workers find L.A.'s workers' comp system downright lucrative

The cost of paying salaries to Los Angeles civilian workers who are temporarily disabled because they have been hurt on the job has gone up 50% over five years, reaching $18 million last year. Employees are claiming more injuries and taking longer injury leaves. City officials don't know why the numbers are climbing so rapidly for office managers, custodians and other non-public-safety workers, but some suspect that L.A.'s generous paid leave policy has created a perverse incentive for employees to game the system. Because injury pay is tax-free, workers can actually earn more money on injury leave than they do on the job.

Some workers find the system downright lucrative. One office manager spent two years on leave for “stress” and took home about $15,000 more than usual, and a dispatcher who fell off a chair earned $20,000 more at home than she would have at work. Another employee took a full year off after banging her elbow on a cabinet, a second year after banging her knee on a desk, and she began a third after feeling pain between her shoulder blades. These employees were able to profit from paid leave because of City Council decisions over the years that have enabled injured civilian workers to earn roughly 90% of their salary, tax-free. That is significantly more than what most other major California cities and counties pay.

The increase in civilian injury leave was revealed last week in the second part of a Times investigation into rising workers' compensation costs among city employees. In September, The Times reported that 1 in 5 Los Angeles police officers and firefighters took paid injury leave at least once last year and collected $42 million in salaries while they were off. Plus, L.A. has a higher rate of employees filing for workers' compensation and pays a greater portion of its payroll for injured workers than do other big cities in California, according to City Controller Ron Galperin.

Yet six months after Galperin released his findings and three months after The Times' initial report, there has been almost no response from City Hall. The controller's audit was largely ignored. There have been no City Council motions or debates over why L.A. has so many workers filing injury claims or how many may be illegitimate. Mayor Eric Garcetti told employees who might be abusing the paid leave policy that they should “watch out,” but any changes would have to be made in the course of labor negotiations.

Los Angeles should protect its workers who are legitimately hurt on the job. But city leaders also have a responsibility to do away with the bizarre incentives created by its generous paid leave policy and to investigate whether fraud or other workplace issues are fueling the increase in claims and cost.

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