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Originally published April 8, 2013 at 8:46 PM | Page modified April 9, 2013 at 5:21 PM

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Last of three parts

Disabilities plague government retirees, even golfers

At the Seattle Fire Department, the disability plague is particularly extreme compared with neighboring cities and other Seattle government retirees. More than 88 percent of the Seattle Fire retirees in the LEOFF-1 system are on disability retirement, many drawing tax-free benefits from the state.

The Associated Press

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 share 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 Washington state members of an old pension system who have joined in a procession of disability retirements over the years — often from 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 disability plague is particularly extreme compared with neighboring cities, Seattle police officers and even other Seattle Fire retirees who are part of a newer pension system.

More than 88 percent of the Seattle Fire retirees in the LEOFF-1 system are on disability retirement, according to an Associated Press analysis of pension records as part of a two-year investigation. That disability rate rises to 95 percent if you remove a small group of Seattle firefighters who served for more than 30 years, which is around the time when it starts becoming more lucrative for a typical retiree to depart on regular retirement.

By comparison, 57 percent of other LEOFF-1 retirees around the state have received a disability designation. For those in the newer LEOFF-2 system with stricter rules and oversight, disability rates statewide fall to 9 percent. Only 5 percent of new-system Seattle Fire retirees have disability designation.

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

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

Bruce Harrell, a Seattle City Council member and candidate for mayor who chairs the Seattle Firefighters Pension Board, did not return calls seeking comment. Reached on his cellphone, he declined to talk and abruptly ended a call with an AP reporter.

Steve Brown, board executive secretary, said firefighters have a physically demanding job, leading some to have health problems. Brown said disability designations don’t hurt 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 hit 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 revenue.

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

Ward had the option of retiring normally or on disability because of 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 chose a lesser amount through the disability option for better tax benefits.

Ward said some LEOFF retirees over the years have expressed concern about how Seattle was handling disabilities. He said it was common chatter among LEOFF-1 veterans that almost everybody who retired from the Seattle Fire Department went out on disability.

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

Disability retirees who worked at Seattle Fire gave a range of reasons to leave, according to an AP analysis of public records. Some left for extreme medical problems such as cancer or heart attacks; others for “exhaustion” or anxiety. One got a disability designation because of diabetes. Another for alcoholism.

More than half of the Seattle Fire disability retirees got their designations because of back problems, according to the analysis. The most common back problem was deemed “degenerative disease of the spine,” a common problem of aging.

Jack Dennerlein, an adjunct professor of ergonomics and safety at Harvard School of Public Health, said the most dangerous U.S. occupations, such as NFL players and bicycle messengers, 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 for Seattle Fire is exceptionally high, he said.

Tale of two systems

State disability laws have created a chasm between firefighters and police officers who started work in the LEOFF-1 system — or Law Enforcement Officers’ and Fire Fighters’ Retirement System Plan 1 — and those who came after it closed to new members in 1977. Hoquiam Fire Chief Paul Dean, who started work after LEOFF-1 closed, said some LEOFF-2 members nicknamed it “left out.”

• Under LEOFF-1, workers can gain a disability designation if they can no longer perform the job with “average” efficiency. LEOFF-2 workers only get it if they can no longer do the job at all.

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

• Under LEOFF-1, disability retirees get a benefit of 50 percent to 60 percent of their final salary, no matter what age the retirement occurs. LEOFF-2 workers’ benefit is largely calculated on years of service, so it can be much lower.

• Under LEOFF-1, workers older than 49 years and 6 months 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 state or private investigators who may place them under surveillance, that doesn’t happen for LEOFF-1 retirees. Brown, of the Seattle Firefighters Pension Board, said nothing in the law 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 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.

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

New jobs, same benefits

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 retired from the Olympia police on disability at 47 after he got out of his vehicle and fell down. With the help of a clinic that helped fix an apparent nerve problem that impacted his walking, Bacon went two years later to take a job at the State Patrol.

Since his limitations had healed, Bacon said he had no problems going through the training — including defensive tactics — to become a commercial vehicle-enforcement officer. He worked for the patrol more than a decade, with no disruption to his disability benefits and no medical reassessments.

Bacon is now fully retired and enjoys 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 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 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 golfer who retired on disability, declined to comment and quickly ended calls with an AP reporter who asked about post-retirement activities. He golfed on at least eight occasions last month, according to an AP review of his posted scores.

Rondestvedt, who lives in Moses Lake, said he departed the job with arthritis in his back and has trouble playing golf some days. He said he’s known a few colleagues who abused the disability system, but Rondestvedt said he had no qualms about going out on disability.

Gilbert, reached in Arizona after a recent golf lesson, retired on disability in 2004 because of 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.

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

Gilbert decided it wasn’t worth the effort, so he moved on to a private-sector gig. He ended up delivering refrigerators.

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