2008_09_lirr.jpgThe NY Time has a huge, front page article on the curious "disability epidemic among" Long Island Rail Road retirees. In a nutshell, the article points out how many LIRR employees apply for disability after retiring...and they end up getting those federal payments. Back in 2004, 97% of employees who retired after the age of 50, applied for and received disability.

The article starts off at the Sunken Meadow golf course, citing how dozens of retired LIRR employees are enjoying the links: "These golfers are considered disabled. At an age when most people still work, they get a pension and tens of thousands of dollars in annual disability payments — a sum roughly equal to the base salary of their old jobs." And these are workers from train operations (conductors, engineers, track workers) and white collar positions (deputy general counsel, claims manager) applying for disability, according to the Times.

The article also points out how employees' early retirement ends up costing the MTA, because of "overtime, training of replacements and early pension payments." (All while the MTA is facing serious budget issues.) Also interesting: How union contracts have various rules that allow some workers to earn many times their usual daily wage--one employee whose base salary is usually around $50,000 earned over $250,000 in 2006, and the Times has an interactive graphic illustrating how he earned the equivalent of four days pay in one.

The article is very extensive and the TImes' findings are so alarming that the LIRR even sent a letter to the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, the organization that approves disability. And to put things into perspective within the MTA, here's a good passage that compares the LIRR with the MTA's other commuter railroad, Metro-North.

Their work forces are of similar size and composition. Employees perform roughly the same tasks: operating trains, punching tickets and maintaining tracks.

And yet in one area — debilitating illness and injury — the difference is so vast as to almost defy medical explanation.

From 2001 through 2007, Metro-North had 32 cases, compared with 753 at the L.I.R.R. In one year, Metro-North had just 2 cases. The L.I.R.R. had 118.

For certain diseases of the musculoskeletal system, like a herniated disc, Metro-North had 49 cases. The L.I.R.R. had 850.

There are also many stunned quotes. MTA CFO Gary Dellaverson wondered, “How is it that somebody is occupationally disabled the day after he retires when he wasn’t occupationally disabled the day before he retired?” and a Capitol Hill "expert on railroads," Glenn Scammel, said, “Short of the gulag, I can’t imagine any work force that would have a so-to-speak 90 percent disability attrition rate. That defies both logic and experience."

Photograph by ranjit on Flickr