Disability retirement is intended for public safety workers with dangerous jobs who become permanently incapacitated by illness or injury. But over the years, it has also become an escape hatch for unwanted police officers and firefighters and a way to pad the pensions of those at the end of their careers, an Orange County Register investigation has found.
Medical retirements come with hefty tax breaks at a time when government is struggling with falling revenues and huge pension liabilities. Under the California Public Employees Retirement System, which covers most city police and firefighters, a disabled retiree gets at least half of his or her pension tax-free – sometimes more.
Critics of the system – including some frustrated city officials – say that many police officers and firefighters spend their careers claiming every injury or illness, so they can later make a case for a disability pension.
“You end up with officers at the end of their careers, looking at disability retirement and the benefits, and there are doctors who will facilitate that,” said John D.R. Clark, Garden Grove human resources director.
California Labor Code 4850 allows injured or ill police officers and firefighters to take up to a year off from work, with full pay, tax free. The legislature has expanded the law to include inspectors, investigators and detectives in any district attorney’s office, county probation officers, group counselors and juvenile services officers, lifeguards, port and airport police, and game wardens. This benefit is not offered to civilians, who must seek paid leave through the workers’ compensation system. In contrast, workers comp is not tax free, seldom equals full salary, and typically must be reauthorized on a monthly basis, said Orange human resources director Steven Pham.