San Jose looks at high firefighter disability rates

SAN JOSE, Calif.

The tax laws favor disability benefits versus retirement benefits, but the city auditors said that really doesn't explain what's going on in San Jose.

San Jose firefighters don't dispute that a significant number of them leave the job on permanent disability.

"Firefighting is a dangerous, strenuous job and over a career of service, it definitely takes its toll on your body," said Jeff Welch from the San Jose Firefighters Union.

A 34-page report by the city auditor though said the numbers don't add up. That report was presented on Thursday to San Jose's Public Safety, Finance & Strategic Support Committee.

"We can't ignore the numbers that we have people who are retiring out at a disability rate far greater than any of our peer cities," said Pete Constant, the Public Safety Committee chair.

The audit said 67 percent of San Jose firefighters retire with a service related disability; 41 percent of San Jose police officers retire on disability. That compares to an average of 37 percent of sworn employees in Oakland and a 40 percent figure statewide. San Jose City Auditor Sharon Erickson said the number of workers' compensation claims also raises some questions.

"We have learned that in the years leading up to retirement, employees were frequently filing multiple workers' comp claims potentially to increase their chances for a disability retirement," said Erickson.

Firefighters say no one is trying to pad their retirement with injuries and there's no evidence of wrongdoing.

"I completely refute that there's fraud and abuse running rampant. Like I said, these procedures and these applications are vetted through the process of the city physician and reviewed by the retirement board," said Welch.

The firefighters union was one of the first in line this year to take a 10 percent cut in salary and benefits to help balance the city's budget and that may pay dividends as the city addresses what many call a disability program in need of reform.

"They are following the guidelines and requirements that are set up in our program, so I think the blame should be not on the individual, but rather on the system. I think that's where we should focus our attention," said San Jose City Councilmember Madison Nguyen.

Firefighters will soon be taking part in a wellness program that will focus on prevention and then next month the City Council will be looking at ways to streamline or tighten this process that seems to allow for a high number of disability retirements.

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