With Google Transit coming to New York and hypothetical service cuts heading our way, we haven’t had any time this week to talk about this past weekend’s great transit story. So without further ado, may I present to you the Long Island Rail Road, churning out disabled workers since 1966.
The fun started on Sunday when The Times published an expose on the “disability epic among a railroad’s retirees.” Four reporters worked on the story, and Walt Bogdanich reported the shocking news:
Virtually every career employee — as many as 97 percent in one recent year — applies for and gets disability payments soon after retirement, a computer analysis of federal records by The New York Times has found. Since 2000, those records show, about a quarter of a billion dollars in federal disability money has gone to former L.I.R.R. employees, including about 2,000 who retired during that time.
The L.I.R.R.’s disability rate suggests it is one of the nation’s most dangerous places to work. Yet in four of the last five years, the railroad has won national awards for improving worker safety.
“Short of the gulag, I can’t imagine any work force that would have a so-to-speak 90 percent disability attrition rate,” said Glenn Scammel, long one of Capitol Hill’s top experts on railroads. “That defies both logic and experience.”
The quartet’s piece goes on to talk about the economic benefits of this scam and the ways in which those in charge at the Railroad Retirement Board, a federal agency that pays these disability claims, allowed this to happen under their noses. Included in the extensive story are tales about retirees on disability playing golf at 50 and a married couple bilking the agency out of $280,000 annually. I wish I could find retirement that paid so well.
Since Sunday, things have really hit the fan. In quick succession, Gov. David Paterson ordered Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate the railroad’s books and the LIRR’s work rules. On Monday, Cuomo unleashed his subpoena power, and yesterday, Federal Agents raided the Long Island headquarters of the Railroad Retirement Board.
Right now, it’s unclear how this impacts the MTA. While the Transportation Authority is not on the hook for these disability payments, they lose significant man hours to early retirees alleging disabilities, and as members of the RRB, they pay significantly more than they otherwise would in certain payroll and Social Security taxes.
For now, this whole scandal simply looks back. It will provide more ammunition for the opponents of the MTA who feel that the agency doesn’t offer responsible oversight and shouldn’t be running the vital transportation network in the New York City area. As the truth emerges, I’m sure many at the MTA and at LIRR will emerged worse for the wear. Perhaps this is the first step toward better oversight both within and of the MTA. If anything, it’ll force the Long Island Rail Road to clean up its act.