If you ride the Long Island Railroad or Metro-North, or in any way pay taxes in America, spend the next 20 minutes reading this because some fat Long Island golf guys are stealing your money.
The NY Times has flat-out blasted the L.I.R.R. in a front-cover, 5,000-word story on the scam railroad workers are pulling to command massive paychecks after they’ve retired.
In short, just about every career LIRR worker claims medical disability when he or she retires, and unless they completely botch the paperwork, they get it. Last year, 94% of career LIRR employees who retired after age 50 got disability benefits; fully 97% qualified in 2004. That’s on top of a retirement package that would be the envy of just about anyone I know.
The Times sicced a crew of eight reporters on this one, and they delivered the goods. It appears arthritis and rheumatism is the malady of choice for retiring LIRR guys. From 2001 to 2007, LIRR had 753 claims for both. By comparison, Metro-North–a railroad of a similar size, with similar staff duties–had 32. 32!
If you don’t ride one of those two railroads, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with you. Well, those claims are paid out in part by Social Security. In fact, Social Security–your retirement home in Boca, your Schlitz money for the final decade of your life–coughed up $3.6 billion on the railroad’s disability claims that were signed off on by the Railroad Retirement Board.
The Times bloodhounds trace the Railroad Retirement Board, a federal organization created in the ’30s, to a crummy insurance office in Chicago. It’s manned by three presidentially appointed employees.
Aptly named Retirement Board inspector general Martin Dickman offered a classic case of passing the buck in his defense of the Board’s nearly 100% approval rate of disability claims (they are only turned down when an applicant fails to complete the paperwork.)
Dickman…acknowledged in an interview that the retirement board’s rejection rate was “almost nonexistent,” but he added: “If Congress wants to change the statute and raise the threshold, that’s up to Congress. That’s not up to us to do.”
The story also unearths some extremely dubious overtime loopholes that are built into the LIRR contracts. It sets the microscope on one Edward J. Koerber, an engineer who routinely got paid for four days while working one–all legal, thanks to arcane LIRR contracts.
Koerber worked his scam–actually, not even a scam, all legal–to boost his annual nut to $276,456–mighty close to LIRR president Helena Williams’ salary of $287,658. Koerber, a heavy-set fellow with a walrus moustache, would quadruple his pay by operating a train with an electric engine (not part of his job duty, extra day’s pay), moving said train to the service yard (not part of his job duty, another extra day’s pay), and accumulating “penalty payments” for things like skipping lunch. (Judging by the Times photo of Koerber, I don’t think he actually skipped too many lunches.)
Edward Koerber, Quarter-Million Dollar Man
Insiders commenting on behalf of LIRR say the railroad is essentially powerless to fight this costly waste, due to the threat of a strike. If the fat-ass engineers and conductors choose to strike, the Metro area is crippled, and the public doesn’t care who’s right or wrong–they just want their 7:07 from Huntington back.
And what do all those able-bodied-yet-disabled retirees do with all their free time? They play golf…for free, no less, thanks to an “Access Pass” for all disabled persons that allows them free activities at state parks.
Metro-North actually comes across as a band of gentlemen, compared to those Long Island scalawags.
“We don’t have full-day penalty payments here,” says Jane Murawski, assistant director of labor relations at Metro-North. “It would never be that the person works their eight-hour shift and then they get another eight hours and another eight hours for other things. That doesn’t happen here.”
Metro-North, formed in 1983 from the old Conrail commuter lines, largely inherited the work rules of its parent, which was mostly a freight railroad. But because the L.I.R.R. has always been primarily a commuter railroad, many existing labor agreements remained after the authority took it over in 1966.
The disparity in pay between the two railroads is considerable. At the L.I.R.R, 107 nonmanagement workers earned more than $150,000 in 2006, compared with only a handful at Metro-North.
“We have the best work rules in the industry nationwide — I would say worldwide,” said Mr. Quinn, the official with the Long Island chapter of the engineers union. “They’ve never been able to negotiate them away from us.”
It is features such as this that make me uneasy to think about the massive layoffs hitting the newspaper industry. Who besides the NY Times has the resources to put into such a story, and who’s even going to think about doing such enterprise reporting five or ten years down the road?
[top image: NY Times. Disabled LIRR guy Joseph Rutigliano playing golf on your dime.]