Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Workers who are injured on the job, who suffer from debilitating injuries after years of service, deserve compensation. This is especially true of public employees, many of whom put their lives on the line to ensure that the greatest city in the world remains safe and convenient.
Our social contract demands that we look after our sick and injured. But nothing in the social contract says that taxpayers ought to pay out millions of dollars every year for dubious compensation claims. There’s a phrase for that: Highway robbery. Or, more to the point, railroad robbery.
A recent investigation by The New York Times found that 94 percent of Long Island Rail Road career employees who retired after the age of 50 have been granted federal disability payments at a cost of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. One year, the figure was 97 percent. The Times article opened with a scene not from a medical clinic, but from Sunken Meadow golf course, where dozens of “disabled” retirees regularly gather for a relaxing day on the links. Not only were these duffers enjoying taxpayer-supported disability payments, but their day on the links was free, the tab picked up by New York’s generous taxpayers. Nice non-work, if you can get it.
Governor David Paterson has responded with proper indignation, asking the state’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, to conduct a full investigation of the disability scam at the L.I.R.R., which is a subsidiary of the debt-plagued Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That’s good, but not enough. The governor wants to empower an inspector general to look into the railroad’s work rules. There’s more than enough suspicious behavior to go around. The Times estimates that since 2000, L.I.R.R. retirees have received $250 million in federal disability money.
The Times story notes that the L.I.R.R.’s disability rate is ridiculously higher than another subsidiary of the M.T.A., Metro-North. The paper found that Metro-North had 32 cases of disability due to arthritis and rheumatism from 2001 to 2007. The L.I.R.R. had 753 such cases. Were some of these claims legitimate? No doubt. And that’s what makes this story all the more infuriating.
The disability scam has a pension counterpart: Arcane work rules have allowed some workers to earn four days of pay for a single day’s work. A handful of engineers earned more than $200,000 apiece in 2006 thanks to this nifty little rule.
Some L.I.R.R. workers have taken taxpayers for a ride. But this must be the last stop.