Boston Fire Dept. Disability Backlog Costly

Posted: 01-11-2008
Updated: 01-11-2008 01:04:16 PM

Walter V. Robinson and Nikki Gloudeman
Boston Globe

The epidemic of Boston firefighters claiming tax-free disability pensions rather than regular retirement has left the city with the added burden of paying their full salaries while firefighters sit idle - in some cases, for several years - waiting for their claims to be approved.

Between 2003 and 2006, the city paid $43.5 million to hundreds of firefighters on injury leave - all of it tax-free. Among the recipients: 132 firefighters who collected more than $100,000 each during that period. Of those, 20 received between $200,000 and $337,000, according to a Globe analysis of city payroll records.

In an average week in 2007, an estimated 200 firefighters were on injured leave - more than one in eight uniformed members of the department, according to the payroll records. Those leaves, combined with people out on sick days and on vacation, have meant that the department has been paying overtime to about 500 firefighters - a third of the department - each week to fill the open spots. The annual cost of overtime has mushroomed from $10.4 million in 2003 to $17.4 million last year.

Taken together, nearly 20 percent of the department's payroll goes to fund injured leave and overtime pay.

Many of the injured men return to duty. But a substantial number do not. For example, at least 60 of the 200 men on injured leave during the first week of November have applied for disability pensions, and many others among the remaining 140 are expected to.

Injured-leave pay is full wages, tax-free. Disability pensions are 72 percent of pay, also tax-free.

Fire Commissioner Roderick L. Fraser, who took the post 13 months ago, said he was astonished to learn recently about what he describes as an abuse of the system - that scores of men remained on injured leave status for two, three, or four years before department officials and then the Boston Retirement Board processed their disability retirement applications. Other than Fraser, a former Navy commander with no prior experience in municipal fire departments, all the department's uniformed officers, including the fire chief, belong to the same powerful union.

Last month, Fraser directed his human resources director to clear the backlog, reminding him that state law requires that disability applications be acted on by the Boston Retirement Board within 180 days.

"All of our accounts have been raided to pay for these abuses. It is sad that a few people who are abusing the system are allowing the entire department to be tarnished," Fraser said in an interview Wednesday. Fraser plans to hire a civilian deputy commissioner to bring tighter management controls to the department.

The Globe first reported an initial upward spike in injured-leave pay in 1999. And in 2000, the O'Toole Commission, which was appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino after the Globe articles, cited the growth in the numbers of firefighters on injured leave as an issue the city should address. But the rapid growth in the rate of disability applications has made the problem much worse - and much more expensive.

So far, city attempts to reduce the incidence of injury leave have proved fruitless. The city can order injured firefighters to light duty only in limited circumstances, because of a provision in the firefighters' contract. And delays within the department in processing disability claims have been matched by delays by the Boston Retirement Board, whose president is a high-ranking member of the firefighters union.

On Monday, the Globe reported that between 2001 and 2007, 102 firefighters had been granted tax-free and substantially higher accidental disability pensions after reporting that they sustained on-the-job injuries while substituting for their superiors at higher pay grades. Many of those who got the higher pensions were superior officers, including eight district chiefs who said their injuries occurred while they were filling in, mostly at desk jobs, when deputy fire chiefs were out ill or on vacation. Fraser, in the story, challenged the legitimacy of some of the claims by high-ranking officers.

One of the district chiefs, Fraser said, asserted that he had hurt his back while moving a filing cabinet at Fire Department headquarters.

Between 2005 and 2007, nearly 75 percent of all Fire Department retirements - 123 out of 166 retirees - were based on accidental disabilities, a substantially greater rate than other state public safety agencies in Massachusetts and comparable cities around the country.

Added to that, so-called "above-grade" disabilities - resulting in firefighters receiving enhanced pensions - have accounted for a sharply increasing percentage of all disability retirements within the department, from 13.5 percent in 2001 to nearly 53 percent of disability retirements last year.

In the 102 cases, the Globe obtained the date of the disabling injuries for 58. Among those, the average amount of time spent on injured-leave pay before retirement was 23 months. One firefighter, Daniel M. Polvere, was on injured leave for 48 months before he retired in 2006.

During that time, he received tax-free injury pay of $243,839. The top recipient during the four years was Captain Joseph M. Gilmore. He collected $337,363 in injury leave pay over 38 months - at the rank of district chief, the grade he temporarily occupied - before he left on a disability retirement last February, according to records the Globe obtained from the city in response to a series of requests made under the state public records law.

In the Monday story, Fraser suggested that many of the highest-ranking officers who have reported being injured while working at a higher grade have set a poor example for other firefighters who in turn took advantage of the system to do the same thing. That phenomenon has boosted the average annual pension of the 102 firefighters who filed similar claims by $10,000 a year - and at a cost to the city of more than $25 million over the lifetimes of the 101 men and one woman who received the added benefits.

The same pattern also holds true for injury-leave pay. An analysis of year-by-year city payroll data shows, for instance, that 23 of 57 district chiefs in 2003 and 34 of 62 district chiefs in 2004 collected injured-leave pay for at least part of the year. During the first week of November 2007, eight of the department's 61 district chiefs were on extended injury leave.

The tax-free injury pay is the product of legislation that applies to police and firefighters. The law, according to several officials, has had predictable consequences: For example, if a fire lieutenant is injured, tax-free status is immediately applied to his regular pay, about $100,000 a year. A disability retirement is 72 percent of his regular pay, also tax-free. So there has long been an incentive to delay the retirement as long as possible. And in a department where many senior officers have done the same thing, there has been little pressure for the practice to change.

Fraser, asked about having so many on injured-leave status for so long, said: "Was it ill will? I don't know. I'd like to say it was something that was overlooked."

What mystifies Fraser is why firefighters are so intent on extra money. Firefighters make close to $60,000 a year with built-in overtime. Senior lieutenants, according to payroll records, top $100,000 a year. And most district and deputy chiefs are paid more than $130,000 and $150,000, respectively.

Edward A. Kelly, president of the Boston Firefighters Union, said he was unaware of the costs of the injured-leave pay. But he brushed aside the notion that there have been any abuses. If the city wants to reduce the costs, he said, a wellness and fitness program would do just that. As for the overtime costs, Kelly said, those, too, could be cut markedly if the city restored to the firefighting force the 100 or more positions cut in the last two decades.

Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded watchdog group, said yesterday that the Fire Department culture is resistant to change.

"For the first time, there is an outside fire commissioner with a mandate to bring change," Tyler said. "But it will be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish."

Walter Robinson can be reached at Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.