Firefighters gamed the system — again

We know Clark County firefighters have abused sick leave. We know they’ve rigged work schedules to drive up overtime and spike their pension benefits.

But the culture of greed and entitlement that has come to define the Clark County Fire Department seems to have gone farther than that.

A new development and a pile of old evidence suggest the department engaged in widespread disability fraud, milking taxpayers for millions of dollars in payments that amounted to grand retirement send-offs for senior employees.

Unlike the sick-leave abuse that was revealed last year, there are no smoking-gun emails that spell out the department’s disability scheme (none that I’ve learned about, anyway). This trickery is like a jigsaw puzzle that, piece by piece, finally is filling in and revealing a clear picture.

For decades, Clark County firefighters received one of the most unusual employment benefits afforded public safety workers anywhere in America. If an on-the-job injury or job-related medical condition left a firefighter unable to work, even after a lengthy paid recovery period, the firefighter would collect a payment equal to two years of compensation as a retirement settlement. Among the department’s rank and file, this benefit was known as Article 31, named for the section in their employment contract that outlined the terms of the benefit. (For battalion chiefs, the benefit was known as Article 28.)

Typically, long-term disability benefits provide monthly income — a percentage of an employee’s salary at the time of the injury — through age 65. Instead, county firefighters negotiated a disability benefit unique to themselves.

Not coincidentally, disability retirements were quite common within the Clark County Fire Department. Between June 1994 and last year, 72 of the department’s 209 rank-and-file retirements involved Article 31 awards. Those awards cost taxpayers a total of $17.4 million, an average of $242,000 per firefighter. From 2008 to 2011, as firefighters’ income continued to grow, the payouts averaged about $320,000.

Disability retirements were more frequent among battalion chiefs. Four of the department’s nine supervisory retirements during that same period resulted in disability payouts. Those payments totaled $1.17 million, or roughly $292,000 per supervisor.

These awards were not contingent on a worker’s compensation finding and, in fact, covered many more conditions than worker’s compensation.

What’s more startling than the payout totals, however, is the breakdown of firefighters’ disability retirements by years of service. You’d think such a large number of disability retirements over such a long period would be spread out among new hires and experienced firefighters, given the risks of the job.

In fact, of the 72 rank-and-file disability retirements since June 1994 (the county couldn’t provide the hire dates of disability award recipients before then), only 13 recipients had less than 20 years on the job, and of those, only two had logged less than 10 years of service. On the other hand, 39 firefighters had at least 25 years of service, a threshold that allows public safety workers to immediately begin collecting pension benefits upon retirement, regardless of their age.

The average service for these firefighters: 24 years. The four battalion chiefs awarded disability retirements averaged 27.5 years of service.

Why do some firefighters choose to work more than 25 years? Those hired on or before June 30, 1985, can boost their annual pension benefit to 90 percent of the average of their highest-earning years by sticking around. Those hired after June 30, 1985, have a top pension benefit of 75 percent, giving them less incentive to stay on the job.

Not coincidentally, five of the department’s disability retirements became official on the firefighter’s employment anniversary or the day after, enabling them to pick up one more year of service and a slightly bigger pension benefit.

As the Great Recession wore on and county services were cut back, county administrators realized they couldn’t afford the disability payouts going forward. During contentious contract negotiations with firefighters in 2010, the county sought to replace the disability payouts with a more traditional benefit that paid 60 percent of the firefighter’s salary to age 65. Any pension and worker’s compensation benefits would offset the county’s disability payouts by an equal amount.

The union wanted to keep the payouts for current workers and phase in the new disability benefit for future hires.

In January 2011, an arbitrator sided with the county. “The evidence shows Article 31 disproportionately benefits employees at the end of their careers, without necessarily providing adequate disability benefits to employees in the first half of their career. Thus the benefit … advantages those least in need of disability benefits to replace salary: retirees,” the decision said.

The arbitrator’s ruling grandfathered firefighters who had applied for disability benefits before the decision was issued. But any disability claims filed after the arbitrator’s ruling would be awarded the new benefit, not the lump-sum payout.

Now, can you guess how many Clark County firefighters have been awarded the new disability benefits in the 13 months since the arbitrator’s ruling?

Zero.

Did the Clark County Fire Department suddenly become a model for workplace safety and occupational health? More likely, firefighters are not filing long-term disability claims because they no longer have an incentive to do so.

So what went on all those years? A source with knowledge of how Article 31 claims were handled says firefighters routinely claimed off-duty, recreational injuries as on-the-job injuries, exaggerated minor conditions or made up ailments altogether. All to score huge windfalls to buy additional service credit with PERS, pay off their homes and begin retirement in style.

Firefighters’ medical records are confidential. There is no question that some of these disability claims were legitimate. A couple of the Article 31 payouts were death benefits.

But there also can be no question that many firefighters were gaming the system, at your expense, yet again. Their actions stain the reputations of the good public servants in their ranks, as well as the valley’s other fire departments.

Schedule rigging and overtime abuse. Sick-leave abuse. Disability double-dealing. What else were they up to?

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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