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Editorial: City can’t afford to pay healthy people not to work

Cook County Forest Preserve District Police Officer Greg Serratore collects disability checks from City Chicago as an injured paramedic who

Cook County Forest Preserve District Police Officer Greg Serratore collects disability checks from the City of Chicago as an injured paramedic who was hurt in 1980. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 19, 2012 6:10AM

Public employees who are permanently injured in the line of duty deserve disability payments. We would never want to turn our backs on those who sustain serious harm while keeping our streets safe or carrying citizens out of burning buildings.

But it’s important to keep the system fair to taxpayers as well. We can’t afford to pay healthy people not to work.

Some recent cases unearthed by Chicago Sun-Times reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco raise doubts about oversight of our disability systems. The cases make clear that, at a minimum, city pension boards should adopt reforms proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And the numerous other systems scattered around the suburbs should consider similar reforms if they are not already in place.

Among the cases outlined in the Sun-Times on Monday and Tuesday were these:

† A Fire Department paramedic who left at age 26 because he hurt his hand while trying to fix a stalled ambulance has been collecting disability payments for 30 years even though he later got a new job as a police officer for the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

† A different former paramedic worked as a nurse in labor and delivery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital even though she is on disability from the Fire Department.

† Another Fire Department worker conducted fire inspections for 18 years at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority before retiring even though he has been on disability leave for 22 years.

† A Chicago cop who has claimed numerous on-the-job injuries has collected more than $245,000 in disability pay because of a laceration to her left index finger, even though she is right-handed.

† Former Chicago Ridge Police Chief Timothy A. Baldermann is being paid nearly $20,000 a year more on disability leave than he made as chief. Besides his disability pay of $129,192 a year, he now is the $127,000-a-year superintendent of a small school district in Joliet and the $18,000-a-year part-time mayor of New Lenox.

Under reforms now before the pension board, firefighters, paramedics and police officers on disability would have to report their income from other jobs.

Also, fire personnel and police officers couldn’t apply for disability leave until they’re examined by their departments’ medical staff to determine if the injured workers are capable of doing other jobs within their departments. And more frequent medical checkups would be required for firefighters on disability who are currently examined only every two years.

Approving those reforms would be a good first step. But more is required.

As we’ve pointed out in the past, in the state workers comp system, it’s rare for a worker to remain on disability for 10 or 15 years. Instead, a judge or another professional steps in to resolve the case.

City Hall needs something similar. Disability cases should be reviewed, and workers who can should start punching a clock again.

We’d also like to see stiffer penalties for fraud and more investigators looking into doubtful cases.

Perhaps the city should consider imposing a residency requirement for those who are on disability, as it does for working police officers and firefighters. That would make it easier to track such cases.

And officials could do more to identify jobs people could still perform even with their disabilities.

Providing disability protection for city workers is important.

It’s too important to weigh it down with unnecessary costs.

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