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Gov. Brown blocks expansion of injury leaves for emergency workers

Gov. Brown blocks expansion of injury leaves for emergency workers
In his veto message, Gov. Jerry Brown wrote there's no reason to believe public safety employees "will need substantially more time than other injured workers to recover." Above, Brown speaks at an event last month. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed two little-noticed bills that would have expanded a special injury leave program that pays California's emergency responders 100% of their salaries, tax-free, when they're out with claimed ailments.

Monday's action came a day after a Times investigation found the frequency, length and cost of such leaves in Los Angeles has increased sharply over the last five years.

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The city paid more than $328 million in salaries, medical bills and other expenses for injured public safety employees from 2009 through 2013. Salaries alone cost $42 million in 2013, up more than 30% from 2009.

The increased number of leaves in Los Angeles has forced the Fire Department to spend millions of dollars a year in overtime and reduced the number of police officers on the street, city officials said.

City leaders across California say the program, which was created by state lawmakers in the 1930s and has been steadily expanded over the decades, encourages long, costly leaves because the employees take home significantly more money when they're not working.

Attorneys for public safety employees and some police and fire officials in Los Angeles argued that delays by the city personnel department in approving medical treatment were at least partly responsible for keeping workers off the job and driving up costs.

One of the bills rejected by Brown would have expanded a state listing of public safety workers whose ailments, including cancer, were presumed to be job-related. The other bill would have ensured police and firefighters could receive up to two years of regular, reduced workers' compensation benefits after they have exhausted full-pay injury leave benefits.

"Obviously, we are ecstatic," said Faith Conley, legislative representative for the California Assn. of Counties. Brown recognized "the pressure both of those bills would have placed on already strapped local budgets," she said.

The bills were backed by a long list of police and firefighter groups and lawyers who represent injured workers, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the California Applicants' Attorneys Assn. Neither organization responded to requests for comment Wednesday.

Currently, police officers and firefighters get up to a year of full-pay leave for each injury claim. If they have not recovered, they are eligible for up to another year of standard workers' compensation benefits — available to all Californians — which pays 66% of salary tax-free. Those payments are capped at just over $1,100 a week, or about $57,000 a year.

This week's vetoes included AB 2378, sponsored by Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), which would have specified that public safety employees were eligible for up to three years of work-related injury leave: One year at 100% of their salary and two years receiving two-thirds of their pay.

In his veto message, Brown wrote there's no reason to believe public safety employees "will need substantially more time than other injured workers to recover." The governor's office declined to elaborate on the reasons for the vetoes.

Perea said that before a court decision last year it had been standard practice for California cities and counties to pay injured police and firefighters for up to three years of temporary disability. His bill "would have restored benefits firefighters and police officers have had for the past 75 years," Perea said.

In practice, it's rare for Los Angeles public safety employees to get shifted to standard workers' compensation benefits, The Times found. They can avoid the reduction in pay by filing a new claim for a different ailment, which resets the clock and provides up to an additional year of injury leave. In some cases, employees file consecutive claims, reporting a new injury just as a previous leave is about to end.

The governor also rejected AB 2052, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). It would have added probation officers, security guards for municipal utilities, welfare fraud investigators and the sergeant-at-arms of both legislative houses in Sacramento to the state's list of public safety workers whose illnesses, including such things as "heart trouble" and Lyme disease, are legally presumed to be work-related.

Brown wrote that there's no "real evidence that these officers confront hazards that gave rise to these presumptions." Gonzalez wrote in an email to The Times that "all peace officers should be treated the same when it comes to the injuries they've sustained while on duty."

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