Well, the LIRR workers have figured out a way to game the system so that they can apply for and get disability pay equal to or in excess of their annual salaries, even when no disability is present.
The answer, according to government records and dozens of interviews, stems from a combination of factors, including highly unusual L.I.R.R. contracts that allow longtime workers to retire with a pension as early as age 50, federal rules that let railroad retirees claim disability for jobs they no longer hold, and an obscure federal agency called the Railroad Retirement Board that almost never says no to a disability claim.No one noticed these issues for years? How many millions are involved?
The federal agency pays the disability claims, but losing so many workers to early retirement costs the L.I.R.R. money — in overtime, training of replacements and early pension payments. At the same time, passengers could soon face another fare increase and the transportation authority is seeking more taxpayer support, already half a billion dollars a year, to close a huge budget gap.
Union contracts also inflate operating costs through arcane work rules, some dating back to the 1920s, which pad employee paychecks, boosting pension and disability payments in turn.
“There are maybe nine different ways to show up at work and get two days’ pay without doing anything extra,” Michael J. Quinn, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen at the L.I.R.R., said in an interview.
These work rules made it possible for eight senior train engineers to earn from $215,000 to $277,000 in 2006. Younger workers earn much less, and income in the top tier was lower in 2007.
Since 2000, those records show, about a quarter of a billion dollars in federal disability money has gone to former L.I.R.R. employees, including about 2,000 who retired during that time.No one noticed that the LIRR was rife with claims for arthritis and rheumatism or other musculoskeletal system diseases? The MTA also operates the Metro North system, and claims under these rules are virtually nonexistent when compared to the LIRR.
You would think that the LIRR is the most dangerous railway operation in the world, and yet it receives awards for safety annually.
So, we've got a series of contracts negotiated that allows LIRR workers to game the system to their benefit, but the ultimate arbiter of this money, the Railroad Retirement Board is to blame as well. Why does it approve nearly 100% of the claims before it? Is that any way to safeguard the system by allowing claims where no disability actually exists?
After all, if this kind of fraud were existent at a traditional insurance company, insurance investigators would be all over the persons claiming disability and showing up with the video evidence of their golf outings (paid for by the state by the way) and other physical activity that should not be possible if the injuries claimed actually existed.
If the transportation authority needed any expertise on disabilities, it could have turned to a former board member and union official, Joseph Rutigliano, who became occupationally disabled after retiring in late 1999 at age 52.This is a huge scandal for the MTA and LIRR and it affects all taxpayers, not just those in the New York metro region since it uses a federal agency as a piggy bank.
Mr. Rutigliano said in an interview that he “crushed” his back in a fall at home and eventually could no longer work as a conductor, where his duties included walking through trains taking tickets and repeatedly climbing in and out of railroad cars. “I needed to use my legs and my back every day,” he said. “It meets the criteria for what the railroad retirement system says prevents you from performing your railroad occupation.”
If Mr. Rutigliano’s condition kept him from working, it did not stop him from golfing. He was a regular this summer at Sunken Meadow, often walking the course twice a week. As a disabled worker, he played free.
The money that these people have received means that there is less money available for actual operations at the railroad, less money for Social Security since the money from the Federal Railroad Retirement Board comes from the Social Security fund, and taxpayers pay for the extravagant lifestyles afforded by these employees who took advantage of the open secret - the piggybank that awaits after retirement upon making the magic claim of disability.
Shameful doesn't begin to describe this; criminal does.
Congress must act to reform the Federal Railroad Retirement Board to deal with this issue, and the LIRR must review and reform its employment procedures. Taxpayers deserve nothing less.