City police, fire disability payments top $8M a year

John Howell
Posted 7/21/11

More than 40 percent of retired Warwick firefighters and 20 percent of retired police are on disability pensions. The pensions are tax-free and also ensure that their children and spouse are entitled …

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City police, fire disability payments top $8M a year


More than 40 percent of retired Warwick firefighters and 20 percent of retired police are on disability pensions. The pensions are tax-free and also ensure that their children and spouse are entitled to free tuition at state colleges. There has never been a case where they have been brought back to work, according to the recollection of City Personnel Director Oscar Shelton.

Yet, Shelton said, the city monitors those on disability pensions, requiring them to submit their tax returns annually. Rarely does the city go deeper than this “desk review” and require police and firefighters on disability to provide medical evidence they should not return to work.

Firefighters and police on disability pensions receive 66 and two-thirds of their pay tax free and are permitted to earn, from other sources, up to the amount of the current pay for the rank they held when they went on pension. If their income exceeds that amount, their pension benefit is adjusted.

Presently, of the 251 retired police officers receiving pensions, 49 are on disability. Annual projected benefits paid police retirees is $11.1 million, of which $2.2 million goes to those on disability, an average of $45,555 per disability retiree.

The numbers for firefighters are greater.

A total of 285 retired firefighters are projected to receive $14 million in benefits. Of the total, 119 are on service disability at a cost of $5.9 million, with an average of $49,609 per disability retiree. The largest disability pensions go to former fire chiefs Thomas Bonn and Robert Hutchinson, who are both paid $85,649.76. There are no police disability payments of $80,000 or more.

Collectively, $8.1 million, or 32 percent of the $25.1 million in police and fire pensions, is paid for service disability pensions.

By comparison, retiree benefits for all other municipal employees on disability are significantly smaller. Of the 328 receiving pensions, 19 are on disability. The total annual cost of benefits for the two categories is $6.6 million.

Unlike police and fire disability pensions that are defined by state law, to be eligible for a disability payment municipal employees must qualify for a Social Security disability payment. The city’s retirement board determines whether a retiree qualifies for a disability pension. Further, the payment is calculated as if the employee was 65 at the time of the disability and it is taxable.

Shelton believes police and fire disability pensions account for much of the unfunded pension liabilities faced by cities and towns.

“If you could fix the disability pension system, it would go a long way in solving the problem,” he said.

Mayor Scott Avedisian agrees that it is a major part of the problem, and an even bigger issue in other municipalities.

Recent Channel 12 investigative coverage showed a North Providence firefighter on disability lifting weights in a gym. There are probes of alleged abuses in other systems but Shelton doubts those efforts will change much. He says we need fundamental changes that will restore accountability and change incentives.

He says a system like the Workers Compensation Court, which determines whether a worker is eligible for benefits or can return to the workforce, is essential to real reform.

Shelton says the scenario he offers is typical:

A firefighter is injured on the job and is put on injured leave at full pay. After a time, the firefighter seems to be better, but complains of pain. Bringing him or her back for a job less physically demanding would make sense, but the individual could still complain of pain. Doctors’ opinions vary and there’s no definitive test.

Meanwhile, firefighters covering for the absent member cost the department overtime while the disabled officer gets full time pay. The chief looks to reduce costs and knows placing the firefighter on disability pension would cut costs by nearly 33 percent immediately. The chief makes his recommendation to the Board of Public Safety. The firefighter goes on disability pension.

“It’s a short term solution for the department but long term cost to the city,” said Shelton.

Might there be a chance to have the worker on a disability pension return to work when they have recovered?

Sheldon said he hasn’t seen it happen, and he doubts, after an extended time, the police or fire chief really wants them back on the force, disrupting any promotions and changes that occurred during their absence. Also, there’s no incentive for the retiree to return because they can remain on disability tax-free and work another job as well.

“When you let this thing go, the further it gets away from you,” Sheldon said.

Avedisian notes that the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council of the Rhode Island Interlocal Trust is looking at this issue and is drafting reform legislation for introduction next year.

According to a memo from the council, Rhode Island is one of two states where uniformed sworn police officers and firefighters are not part of the normal workers compensation system. The aim of changes in the statutes would be to assign jurisdiction to the court without changing benefits.

Key disputes to be resolved include whether an injury is, in fact, compensable and whether it is really work related; whether an injured police or fire employee should return to work; the type of medical treatment necessary to determine suitability for work and the type of treatment and rehabilitation necessary to correct an injury and have the worker return.

The benefits set by state law, such as free tuition for the disability retiree’s family, and survivor benefits for all police and fire retirees, further make pensions attractive. Unlike municipal employees, police and fire do not have to pay more for survivor benefits. Their surviving spouses receive 67.5 percent of the deceased retirees benefit at no added expense.

Local rules regulating disability pensions and those going forward have been tightened.

The numbers of fire and police on disability dropped significantly after new regulations Sheldon and former City Solicitor Will Smith implemented in 1993.

Of the 49 police on disability, ten of those were granted during the last 11 years of Avedisian’s administration. Thirty of the 119 firefighters on disability received pensions during the same 11 years.

The mayor said the standards adopted in 1993, setting forth a system to qualify for a disability pension, including physician evaluations, has helped. However, he called assessing whether an employee is capable of returning difficult because so much is confidential and makes it difficult to make a case. Prior to the regulations, Shelton called it a “hit or miss system with a lot of room for error.”

Going forward under legislation introduced by Mayor Scott Avedisian and approved by the council, those fire and police hired after July 1, 2012 and awarded disability pensions would have their payments reduced to what they would have been paid on a regular pension when they reach retirement age at 25 years of service.

Some mechanism beyond the desk review of those on disability pension that looks at tax returns and physician assessments would help, says Sheldon.

“It’s very rare to get concrete evidence that someone is disabled,” Shelton said.

“The injured on duty and the disability pensions go hand-in-hand,” he said. “There is no incentive to return to work.”


5 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Conservative

    41.75 of retired firefighters retired on a disability, and we have respect for them why? That is disgraceful. How do they sleep at night?

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 Report this

  • HarrietLloyd

    This is investigative work well done! Thanks to the Warwick Beacon for doing the research and reporting this important story!

    Friday, July 22, 2011 Report this

  • Serpico

    Yes, disability pensions are certainly a drain on the cities financial reserves. However, there are those police officers who are on a police disability pension that are legitimately disabled, most of whom are unable to work on any job. Than there are those who really could return to work but are to old to perform the duties of a police officer or a firefighter. Certainly, no one would expect to see a 65 year old man climbing a ladder to rescue someone from a burning structure,or expect a 50 year old police officer chase a young robber down Main Street.Some politicians have made the suggestion that retirement ages be increased to age 50 and 65 for police and firemen in that order. I submit that in the past the reason that the retirement age was set at 25 years of service is because it has been proven that beyond those years it is dangerous, not only for the police or firemen, but also for the general public to keep a firemen or police officer on the job longer. However, now that a person is employable at age 18 the retirement age could be increased.Also the departments would be hard pressed to find a position for returning disablity personel since there are only a few positions within the confines of either the Fire Department or the Police Department.Obviously, there has to be some reform to the disability pension system in Warwick but let us not rush into drastically making changes until all aspects of the system are explored.

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 Report this

  • Unionthug

    To be fair a large percentage of those retired on disabolity were from over twnty plus years ago. Times have changed and there arent many people leaving. Don't blame the current workers for this problem. Also I would add until you have had to drag a 300 lb person out from a small bathroom and perform CPR on them, or carried a 400lb person from the third floor down a narrow stairway (all of which weve done in the last week alone) then you don't know the jobs we perform. Not to mention the fact that everyone we pick up is sick with diseases and colds, infections, and blood/vomit/stool everywhere. Not complaining because I enjoy working, but until you know what we do don't open your mouth....

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 Report this

  • Serpico

    I must agree with the Mayor, and the city emplyees pension administrators, that something must be done to check on and control disability pensions. It is a kown fact that there are those who have taken advantage of the system.and are not disabled to the point where they cannot work at other less strenuous jobs within the police and fire departments.However, the tax payers must take into consideration that the people on disability pensions had applied for their pensions and were granted the pensions by the Board Of Public Saftey, upon application. So who is to blame for the mess the city is in with the disability pensions. Not the members receiving the pensions but those administrators who nonchalantly allowed them to take place without sufficiant investigation of each case.I am certain that under the current administration there is more investigations conducted on applicatons for disibility pensions. How does the old saying go ?" We close the door after the horse is out of the barn." It appears that that is exactly what has taken place over the years. Of course if offered there are those who will take advantage of the situation.

    I must add however, that the citizens of Warwick can be proud of their Policemen and Firefighters They have proven time and time again that they are dedicated to their professions and are always available when needed.

    Thursday, July 28, 2011 Report this