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COUNTY REPORT: THE HIGH COST OF DISABILITY

Retirees Add New Jobs to Disability Pay

Injuries: Two public workers deemed unfit for their posts were hired anew for similar ones. One retired again with a second health-related pension.

December 15, 1996|CARLOS V. LOZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gregory M. Turner retired as a California Highway Patrol officer with a work-related wrist injury in 1981. CHP officials say his tax-free pension is $15,000 a year.

A decade later, after working as a Ventura County welfare fraud investigator for seven years, he injured his right shoulder on the job while lifting his briefcase out of the backseat of his car.

No longer able to draw or fire his county-issued pistol, Turner, then 43, retired again. Under the formula set by state law, he was entitled to a second disability pension of about $18,000 a year.

Gregory Askay had been a Ventura police officer for more than 10 years when he retired from the department with a shoulder injury in 1983. He was also granted a lifetime disability pension.

The same month he retired, Askay went to work for Ventura County and today is an investigator in the district attorney's office. Asked how he could go from one public safety job to another, while still collecting disability, he said:

"My retirement with the city of Ventura and my employment with the county has all been aboveboard. I don't think it is appropriate to say anymore."

Officials say these types of cases underscore the reason why changes are needed in the state law governing the disability retirement system. They say local retirement boards need more discretionary power in managing their own disability programs.

The current system, they say, allows for a disabled worker not only to continue working full time in a similar job with an outside employer, but also to continue collecting full disability benefits.

So how is it that a California Highway Patrol officer who suffered a career-ending injury wound up in a county job that requires him to perform some of the same tasks, such as making arrests, as his previous position?

Turner, who declined to discuss his wrist injury, said he underwent extensive therapy after his retirement from the Highway Patrol and was able to work as a computer repairman.

But Turner missed law enforcement-type work, he said, and so he applied for a job in 1984 as a county welfare fraud investigator.

"I saw an opportunity to become fully employed and get back into a semi-law-enforcement situation," he said. "You can't fault me for getting in."

Because his job was not technically considered a public safety position, Turner was required to take a less rigorous physical, which he had no trouble passing.

Milton Suttle, Turner's supervisor at the county, said his office was aware of Turner's injury, but that it was not a factor in his hiring.

"If his injury was such that he could not perform his job here, then we would have passed him over," Suttle said. "But at the time he was hired, you couldn't tell he had a hurt wrist."

Turner said it was not his choice to leave the Highway Patrol. He said he was forced to retire because he could no longer perform his regular duties as a patrol officer.

"I didn't want to leave law enforcement," he said. "I expected to be there 30 years. I did everything within the system, and it's the system's choice to retire people."

As for his second injury while working as a county welfare fraud investigator, Turner said he was lifting his briefcase out of the backseat of his Volkswagen when it caught on the headrest and jerked his arm, tearing the rotator cuff tendon in his shoulder.

Since his shoulder accident, Turner, who declined to say if he is currently employed, said he has had two surgeries and continues to undergo physical therapy. He said no amount of retirement benefits is worth the pain he lives with.

"I'm up every night with pain in my shoulders and wrist," he said. "Money is not an issue. To agonize every night, 24 hours a day, is a big price to pay."

In Askay's case, records show that he suffered a right-shoulder injury in a 1975 motorcycle accident while pursuing suspects as a Ventura police officer.

Although Askay was able to continue in his job, his injury was further aggravated over the years from other job-related accidents. Despite undergoing shoulder surgery in 1982, records show, Askay's condition worsened after he fell on his nightstick a year later as he tackled a suspect.

The same year, Askay was granted a service-connected disability from the Police Department and went to work for the county, first as an administrative assistant, then a welfare fraud investigator.

He eventually transferred to the district attorney's office as an investigator, a position officially classified as public safety.

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