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Disability status not a game-changer

Under old pension rules, 88 percent of Seattle Fire retirees took benefit

SEATTLE – On a good day of golf, Ken Brunette will shoot just a few strokes over par. On a bad outing, Odin Rondestvedt will stray into the 100s. Jack Gilbert typically averages a bogey per hole.

While their scores and favorite golf courses may differ, the three men also have a lot in common: They are former Seattle firefighters, deemed disabled by a local board and now drawing tax-free benefits from the state.

Brunette, Rondestvedt and Gilbert are just three of more than 3,000 members of an old pension system in Washington who have joined in a procession of disability retirements over the years – often due to back ailments. With lenient definitions of what qualifies as a disability and little effort to monitor the ailments, some have gone on to play sports and take other physically demanding jobs without any impact on their benefits.

Nowhere is that trend more apparent than at the Seattle Fire Department, where the extent of the disability plague is particularly extreme.

More than 88 percent of the Seattle Fire retirees in the so-called LEOFF-1 system are on disability retirement, according to an Associated Press analysis of pension records conducted as part of a two-year investigation of the system.

By comparison, 57 percent of other LEOFF-1 retirees around the state have received a disability designation. For those who are part of the newer LEOFF-2 pension system that has stricter rules and more oversight, disability rates statewide plummet to just 9 percent. Only 5 percent of new-system Seattle Fire retirees have a disability designation.

LEOFF-1 workers who retire on duty-related disability automatically get between 50 and 60 percent of their final salary for the rest of their lives, with annual cost-of-living adjustments and no income taxes to be paid. While disability decisions for most government employees in Washington are made by the same state agency as private sector workers, the LEOFF-1 system has its own network of dozens of local disability boards that make the calls.

Those disability boards, comprised of many fellow members of the LEOFF-1 system, have had little incentive to reject disability claims or give them further scrutiny.

Bruce Harrell, a city councilman and candidate for mayor who chairs the Seattle Firefighters Pension Board, declined to talk when reached on his cellphone.

Steve Brown, executive secretary of the board, said firefighters have a physically demanding job that wears on the body, leading some to have health problems. Without prompting, Brown argued the disability designations don’t hurt state taxpayers because many who retire on disability in later years have similar or lower benefits than if they’d retired normally.

Perhaps the biggest impact comes from the tax benefits, which hits the federal government. And with more than 3,100 disabled LEOFF-1 pensioners earning more than $131 million each year, the federal government is missing out on a lot of tax revenues.

“The only one losing is the IRS,” said Dan Ward, a retired fire chief in Shelton.

Ward had the option of retiring normally or on disability due to heart problems. Because he had worked for 31 years, he could have done a basic retirement with a benefit around 60 percent of his final salary, but he chose to take a lesser amount through the disability option because the tax benefits would make it more worthwhile.

Ward said some LEOFF retirees over the years have expressed concern about how Seattle officials were handling disabilities.

Steve Suedel, one of the few Seattle firefighters to depart without a disability designation in recent years, said colleagues were well aware that some of the doctors used by Seattle firefighters in past years were very lenient, allowing leave and disability designations with little reason.

Disability retirees who worked at Seattle Fire gave a range of reasons to depart the job, according to an AP analysis of records obtained under public records laws. But more than half of the Seattle Fire disability retirees received their designations due to back problems, according to AP’s analysis. The most common back problem was deemed “degenerative disease of the spine,” which is a common problem of aging.

Jack Dennerlein, an adjunct professor of ergonomics and safety at the Harvard School of Public Health, said some of the most dangerous U.S. occupations include NFL players and bicycle messengers. Those fields may see about half of their workers take temporary disability leave each year – many times higher than a typical 3 percent rate. Those numbers only account for temporary disabilities, and Dennerlein said chronic, long-term disability rates are even lower.

The 88 percent rate of disability retirements among Seattle Fire pensioners is exceptionally high, Dennerlein said.

“That seems off the charts,” he said.

Medical examinations not needed after age 49.5

State disability laws have created a wide chasm between firefighters and law enforcement officers who started work in the LEOFF-1 system – short for Law Enforcement Officers’ and Fire Fighters’ Retirement System Plan – and those who came after the system closed to new members in 1977.

• Under LEOFF-1, a worker can gain a disability designation if he or she can no longer perform his or her job with “average” efficiency. LEOFF-2 workers only get it if they can no longer perform their jobs at all.

• Under LEOFF-1, workers qualify for the same disability retirement compensation no matter how their ailment occurred. LEOFF-2 workers who are disabled outside of the job can have drastically reduced benefits.

• Under LEOFF-1, disability retirees get benefits of 50 to 60 percent of their final salaries, no matter what age the retirement occurs. LEOFF-2 workers have their benefits largely calculated on their years of service, meaning the benefits can be much lower.

• Under LEOFF-1, workers who are older than 49 years and 6 months of age no longer have to face medical examinations by a physician to reassess the disability designation. There is no such age limit in LEOFF-2.

More than 40 percent of Seattle firefighters on disability retired in the five years after reaching that 49.5 age threshold, with the most common disability retirement age in the department being 50. The most common retirement age for other LEOFF-1 pensioners is 65.

While other disabled workers in the state – both in the public and private sectors – may be scrutinized by dozens of state investigators or private investigators that may place them under surveillance, that doesn’t happen for LEOFF-1 retirees. Brown, the executive secretary of the Seattle Firefighters Pension Board, said there’s nothing in the law that would lead the board to examine retirees or require further medical examinations after age 50.

Steve Nelsen, who worked for the Department of Retirement Systems handling legal matters and now works on the LEOFF-2 board, said it is rare for state officials to pursue follow-up medical examinations for LEOFF-1 retirees. He said such examinations would likely be a waste of time because it was such a low bar for retirees to reach and maintain their disability designation.

“The likelihood that he’s going to perform his job with ‘average efficiency’ is limited – just by virtue of the natural aging process,” Nelsen said.

Many disabled retirees are working elsewhere

Still, many disabled retirees in LEOFF-1 have returned to work, sometimes in other government jobs and sometimes in positions that have physical demands.

Robert Bacon, a former police officer in Olympia, retired on disability at age 47 after he got out of his vehicle and, for some reason, fell down. With the help of a clinic that helped fix an apparent nerve problem that affected his walking, Bacon went two years later to take a job at the Washington State Patrol as a commercial vehicle enforcement officer. He worked there for more than a decade, with no disruption to his disability benefits and no medical reassessments. Bacon is now fully retired and enjoys long-distance horseback riding.

At least 422 disability retirees in the LEOFF-1 system later returned to work in other government positions, according to an AP analysis of pension and employment records. An untold number of others worked in the private sector. As long as LEOFF-1 retirees do not work in other LEOFF-1 positions, their disability benefits will not be disrupted.

Other retirees have maintained active lifestyles. Lynda Ring-Erickson, a LEOFF-1 retiree from King County who departed on disability after damage to her Achilles tendon made her incapable of running, recalled one person who retired with a bad knee but continued to play on the county soccer team.

“I thought that was unusual,” Ring-Erickson said.

Brunette, the talented golfer who has retired on disability, declined to comment and quickly ended phone calls with an AP reporter who asked about his post-retirement activities. He golfed on at least eight occasions last month, according to an AP review of his posted score records.

Rondestvedt, who now lives in Moses Lake, said he departed the job with arthritis in his back and has trouble playing golf on some days. He said he’s known a few colleagues – he declined to name people specifically – whom he felt abused the disability system, but Rondestvedt said he had no qualms about going out on disability for his ailment.

Gilbert, reached in Arizona after a recent golf lesson, retired on disability in 2004 due to a bad knee. After surgery repaired his knee and a divorce seized some of his pension money, Gilbert said he sought a return to the Seattle Fire Department to earn a paycheck.

Even though his doctor had given Gilbert approval to return to the job, Gilbert said the disability board wanted to put him through further testing. And he said the department wanted him to go through training typically geared for rookies.

Gilbert decided the whole thing wasn’t worth the effort, so he moved on to a private-sector gig.

He ended up delivering refrigerators.

Associated Press writer Mike Baker can be reached on Facebook:

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