Finance fishing boats

Healthy workers cost taxpayers $ 33 million in disability pensions

In 1981 and 1982, Spotlight published papers on Massachusetts’ dysfunctional disability retirement system. According to reports, some injured workers who deserved to be paid ended up receiving social assistance, while others played with the system and continued to cash checks. The state legislature passed a sweeping reform bill in 1982 that created an oversight agency to clean up the mess. The problems, it seemed, would be solved.

But more than a decade later, Spotlight editor-in-chief Gerard O’Neill received advice: the disability pension system, a source said, had gone mad again. O’Neill tasked reporters Mitchell Zuckoff and Dick Lehr to figure out what was going on.

The resulting project, which would go on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was fueled by a combination of old-school, shoe-leather reporting, and modern (at the time) computer technology. Through an aggressive campaign of public records requests, Lehr, Zuckoff, researcher Cindy Rodríguez and World outside lawyer Jonathan Albano has compiled a vast mine of state files on so-called disabled public workers. Then they hired a technician from the Globe IT department to create a database to organize the information.

The database gave a strange insight. Hundreds of “disabled” workers – the team identified 305 of these workers and believed there might be thousands more – had been cleared by medics to return to work, but they stayed behind. disability, receiving tax-free benefits year after year. In the previous decade alone, liability to taxpayers had reached $ 33 million.

And that’s where shoe leather came in. Zuckoff and World photographer John Tlumacki flew to Florida, where a surprising number of healthy disabled workers appeared to reside. Tlumacki took photos of the men who were supposedly unable to swing on the golf course and jump into boats to go fishing. Tlumacki and Zuckoff also observed that some of them were turning up for new jobs, which should have made them ineligible for their Massachusetts disability pensions. (Pensions were only intended for public servants so injured on the job that they could no longer earn a living.)

Next, the team checked the government agencies responsible for eliminating these abuses. It soon became clear that the state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration – the oversight agency created by the 1982 legislation – was a “paper tiger without even a lot of paper,” as Lehr puts it today. He kept nothing close to complete retiree records, had little control over the dozens of local pension boards that handled individual cases, and hardly ever enforced anything.

The impact of the series was felt even before it was over. Governor William Weld tasked his administration and finance secretary, future Governor Charlie Baker, to clean up the mess. “Weld Wants Pension Abuse Prosecuted” read the headline in The Globe on the day of the publication of the third installment of the project. “The administration acted quickly,” Zuckoff says.

And the legislature quickly followed. Within months, he had passed a new reform law intended to patch up the system once and for all. During the bill signing ceremony, Weld presented Zuckoff with the ceremony pen. But with his editor in mind, the reporter turned it down out of respect for journalistic decorum. “Gerry would have killed me,” he said.

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