PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A disproportionate number of Rhode Island sheriffs are out of work after claiming an on-the-job injury, collecting their full salaries tax-free at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2 million a year, according to a Target 12 review of payroll data.
As of September, 23 of the 179 sheriffs were on injured on duty status, or IOD. By comparison, only three of Rhode Island’s 226 state police troopers are out on IOD.
Target 12 discovered that unlike other public safety agencies, Rhode Island’s sheriffs have a unique two-tiered system that allows them to stay on IOD for years. Of the 23 sheriffs who currently have that status, seven have been on IOD for more than four years, with four on IOD for more than eight years. The longest for 11 years and nine months, as of September.
State officials estimate those 23 sheriffs have collected more than $5 million in benefits so far since they stopped working. Lawyers for the R.I. Department of Public Safety denied WPRI 12’s request for the names of the sheriffs out on IOD.
The impact on the state’s court system has been detrimental and potentially dangerous, according to Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice Gibney.
“We start every day in the hole,” Gibney said. “We’re closing courtrooms on a staggered basis because judges can’t get on the bench because they don’t have security.”
Gibney said she has grown increasingly concerned that the shortage of sheriffs could result in violence in a courtroom or the halls.
“There is not a morning that I don’t drive in and say, ‘Please God, let this not be the day,’” Gibney said. “There is no question there is going to be an event.”
Chief Sheriff David DeCesare inherited the crisis when he took the job nearly six years ago, and said his department struggles every day to maintain a safe staffing level.
“There are five people in this organization I have never met in my five-and-a-half-year tenure,” DeCesare said. “That’s a problem.”
DeCesare said two of the 23 sheriffs out injured have been terminated since the data was provided to Target 12. He declined to say what led to the firings because it is a personnel issue.
Employees on IOD collect their entire salary tax-free, while retirees receiving an accidental disability pension get two-thirds of their final salary tax-free.
In most other public safety agencies, a worker who goes out injured due to a work-related incident can remain on IOD for 18 months. At that point the worker must go before a panel of three doctors to determine whether he or she is unable to return to work; if so, the worker must then apply for an accidental-disability pension.
For Rhode Island sheriffs, it’s a different story.
“The sheriffs have two bites of the apple, so to speak,” DeCesare said. “They’re not only covered under IOD, but they’re also covered under worker’s comp.”
DeCesare went on to explain that after 18 months sheriffs’ IOD cases are shifted to the worker’s comp office, where they can linger for up to five years if the injured sheriff’s personal physician continues to say the individual is unable to return to work. That timeframe can extend even longer if the sheriff appeals a decision made in Worker’s Compensation Court.
“I don’t believe there’s any other agency around that has the ability to be under both,” said DeCesare.
The five sheriffs who have surpassed six-and-a-half years on IOD have been able to stay on that status because they went out injured before some reforms that were made in 2011, which capped the worker’s comp window to five years.
DeCesare says it is unlikely those employees will ever come back to work. However, DeCesare can’t fill positions that are vacant under IOD and must have sheriffs work overtime to make up for the shortfall.
R.I. Director of Administration Michael DiBiase told lawmakers in March the state spent $732,000 in overtime costs alone last year to cover shifts for sheriffs out injured.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo attempted to reform the sheriffs’ IOD system in her most recent budget proposal. Her proposed changes would have put the sheriffs’ IOD policy in line with other public safety agencies and would require an independent medical examiner to determine if a sheriff is still too injured to work.
The union representing the sheriffs testified against the changes, and Democratic legislative leaders dropped the governor’s proposal from the final budget.
Repeated requests for an interview with the union were not accepted. But James Cenerini of labor union Council 94, which includes the deputy sheriffs union, said during testimony before the House Finance Committee in March that any changes to the policy should be part of contract negotiations.
“Many times our members are legitimately and severely injured in the course of their duties,” Cenerini told lawmakers.
He also argued that making sheriffs move to an accidental disability pension after 18 months could prevent employees out with a long-term injury from being able to someday get back to work.
“It could force people who are aggressively seeking medical treatment to preemptively file an accidental disability pension even if they do not seek to get one,” he said.
The union has previously called on the governor to hire more sheriffs.
Gibney said she has met with the governor about the crisis and said Raimondo was very sensitive to the court’s needs.
Jennifer Bogdan, a Raimondo spokesperson, said the governor is going to again seek to reform the IOD policy at the sheriff’s department in the next legislative session.
“The large number of sheriffs on IOD puts a tremendous strain on the division. The governor has previously proposed reforms that would prevent the misuse of the IOD system,” Bogdan said in an email. “Next year she plans to once again introduce legislative reforms – whether through the budget or stand-alone legislation — that would serve as an effective solution to the challenges that division faces.”