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Lawmakers urged to fix ‘loopholes’ in sheriff injury pay

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Senate Finance Hearing on IOD

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony Tuesday on a proposal to overhaul the state’s injured-on-duty law, which the Raimondo administration says has allowed a disproportionately large number of sheriffs to remain out of work while collecting their full pay tax-free.

R.I. Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase told senators there are currently 24 state employees collecting injured-on-duty (IOD) benefits, and 18 of them are sheriffs. He said only five of the injuries suffered by sheriffs were from inmate contact, while “the rest are common workplace injuries, like slip-and-falls.”

When an employee is on IOD, the state cannot fill his or her position with a new hire, which in the case of sheriffs has led to strain in the courts due a lack of personnel.

“For the sheriffs each one of the people that is out, is a position lost,” DiBiase said. “There would be no serious debate that the law is not broken.” 

Target 12 has previously reported a larger 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 over $2 million a year.

DiBiase said the disproportionate number of sheriffs on IOD may be because they don’t generally earn a lot of overtime, so collecting their full pay tax-free is more lucrative. Other public safety employees – like correctional officers and troopers – would feel the pinch because they cannot collect overtime while on IOD.

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s 2019-20 budget proposes several changes that DiBiase said would close “loopholes” and restore the IOD law to its original intent. The plan would save taxpayers an estimated $1.7 million a year.

Under the plan, state employees collecting IOD would have to file to retire with an accidental disability pension after 18 months (or when a doctor determines the worker can’t get any better). 

After the state Retirement Board makes a determination as to whether or not the employee should be awarded a pension, the IOD benefits would end.

Right now employees who are denied pension benefits are stuck in limbo. Target 12 has reported that some sheriffs have collected IOD benefits for years, including one who has been on injury status for 12 years, taking in more than a half-million dollars in tax-free pay.

The proposal would also call for an independent medical examiner (IME) to determine whether a state employee is too hurt to work and therefore qualifies for IOD benefits. Right now, workers only need sign-off from their personal physicians.

To receive an accidental disability pension – which in Rhode Island is two-thirds of a worker’s salary, tax-free – it takes an exam from three doctors, including an IME. 

Paul Clays, president of Local 2409, which represents sheriffs, told lawmakers setting the clock at 18 months would be a mistake because there have been sheriffs out for years who came back to work after undergoing a successful surgery.

“My members transport and have in cell blocks 30,000 inmates a year — it’s a very dangerous job,” Clays said. “My members do not deserve to have their benefits changed.”

Clays said that of the sheriffs currently on IOD, nine have filed for an accidental disability pension, only to see their cases drag on for years.

“Some applications have been lost and had to be refiled three or four times,” he said.

Jim Cenerini of the union AFSCME Council 94 – which also represents sheriffs – opposed the governor’s plan, testifying the proposal by the administration “does not provide our members with adequate due process.”

Cenerini’s concern: if the Retirement Baord denies the employee a pension, the worker is “cut off” from any type of benefits.

Instead, Cenerini proposed allowing a workers’ compensation judge to award the disability pension as a course of appeal for the employee.

Evan England, a spokesperson for General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, said in an email the treasurer’s office opposes the union’s plan due to “concerns about creating a duplicative process that does not consider the findings and determinations of the Retirement Board.”

England said lawmakers approved a bill in 2011 that allowed city and town police officers and firefighters to appeal Retirement Board denials of disability pensions to Workers’ Compensation Court.

“Because this is a relatively new process, only a handful of these appeals have been heard so far,” England said in an email. “We have concerns that this bill could create a duplicative and costly new process that would be redundant to the existing system.”

DiBiase also opposed the union plan because he said the labor proposal “does not address the heart of the issue, which is that IOD is supposed to be a temporary benefit.”

“We do not support alternatives that don’t correct abuses in the system,” DiBiase said. “It was never the intention for state employees to receive this generous, tax-free benefit for long periods of time. We need to remove incentives for abuse so we can get more people back to work to help protect the health and safety of the public.”

He added, however, that the administration is “eager for Council 94 to be part of the solution.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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