Los Angeles police and firefighters work in a culture that encourages excessive and questionable workers' compensation claims, often for entirely preventable injuries, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year, according to new audits by Controller Ron Galperin. The reports follow a Times' investigation last year that found that the city's public safety personnel take paid injury leave at significantly higher rates than public safety employees elsewhere in California.
FOR THE RECORD
A March 27 editorial said that more than 40% of Los Angeles police officers and firefighters had filed multiple injury claims. In fact, about 25% have filed multiple claims. It also said the money spent on compensation was enough to "hire" 2,300 new police officers. It was enough to pay their salaries, but not pensions and benefits.
Some 66% of firefighters and 60% of police officers filed at least one workers' compensation claim in the last three years. More than 40% from both departments filed two claims during same period, the audit found. The Times' analysis documented an increase in both the number of claims filed and the duration of the paid injury leaves. That has had a major impact on public safety operations and costs, as the city has to pay not only the claims but also more overtime to backfill injured workers' shifts.
The high number of claims — and the apparent ease with which they are approved — has created a culture of workers' compensation abuse.
Nearly of half of police officers and one-third of firefighters who responded to a survey by the controller said that their co-workers filed "excessive" or "questionable" injury claims. It doesn't help that state law has created a perverse incentive to stay off the job — sworn personnel get 100% of their salary and pay no state or federal taxes while on leave, meaning they can earn more money at home than at work.
And auditors found that many on-the-job injuries occurred during routine, non-emergency response activities or while exercising or playing sports. Some 13% of the claims filed by firefighters were for exercise-related injuries, including playing racquetball during work hours, at a cost of $3.3 million in claims and overtime. If L.A. is going to slow the rising cost of workers' compensation, Mayor Eric Garcetti must direct the police and fire chiefs to reduce the number of routine and preventable injuries, as well as sports-related claims. Yes, it's important for public safety workers to be physically fit, but why should taxpayers be on the hook when officers are hurt while participating in weight-lifting competitions when they are off duty?
Galperin's audits point to systemic problems in the way the city is managing workers' injuries, and the cost of inaction is staggering. The city spent $141 million last year on police and firefighters' workers' compensation — enough to hire more than 2,300 new police officers. Garcetti, the City Council and the city's managers must ensure that sworn personnel have the training and tools to do their jobs safely to minimize injury. And the city must eliminate incentives and attitudes that may encourage workers to abuse the workers' compensation system.