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L.A. County demands more oversight of workers' compensation

Employees who said they were not allowed back to work have received large payouts. County officials expect to pay $407 million in comp claims this fiscal year, up from $288 million last fiscal year.

September 12, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Peter "Navy" Tuiasosopo had only worked as a Los Angeles County probation officer for 180 days when he left work after suffering two on-the-job injuries in 2000 -- straining his shoulder closing a gate and hurting his ankle breaking up a fight among youths.

During the next seven years, Tuiasosopo, 45, collected workers' compensation as he jetted to Hawaii to act in movies and television shows that paid more than $38,000.

In 2007 he sued the county, alleging probation officials failed to help him return to work, and earlier this year the county settled the lawsuit for $125,000.

"It was very painful to pay that," L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

The case is one of several large settlements that have Molina and other supervisors calling for increased oversight of county programs that are supposed to help avoid costly employment discrimination suits by quickly returning injured employees to work as required by state and federal law.

Molina said supervisors initially balked at paying Tuiasospo, but relented after county lawyers advised them that he had not broken the law and that the county was liable because probation staff had failed to help him transition back to work as required by state and federal fair employment laws.

Molina said Tuiasosopo used what she sees as a loophole in the county's workers' compensation system. She also faulted probation staff for failing to document their attempts to offer him work.

"He was out making movies and had a website and was doing all the work a working person would do and yet with us, he was disabled," she said. "We could have dismissed him years ago if we had followed the process."

Tuiasosopo's lawyer strongly disagreed, insisting his client made a good-faith effort to get his job back and was repeatedly rebuffed.

"They refused to bring him back to work," said Neil Pedersen, of Irvine-based Pedersen Law & Dispute Resolution Corp. "They're looking too narrowly at what their obligations are under the law."

Pedersen said the character actor -- who had roles in such films as "Necessary Roughness," "Street Fighter," and "The Scorpion King," -- genuinely wanted his probation job back. "He loved that job. He felt like he was helping. He was working with troubled kids," Pedersen said.

Before settling his lawsuit, Tuiasosopo agreed to reimburse the county the $38,780 he earned while receiving workers' compensation, county staff said.

On Tuesday, supervisors approved a $96,000 settlement with former probation officer Drennan Cannon, who sued the county last year alleging probation officials blocked his return after he twice injured his back breaking up fights at a county juvenile hall. Earlier this year, the county settled another lawsuit by an injured former probation officer for $616,000.

As part of Tuesday's settlement, Molina proposed the county's chief executive investigate the recent increase in disability discrimination lawsuits by county employees and review the effectiveness of the county's risk management program for helping injured workers at probation and other departments. Called Return to Work, the risk management program is supposed to ensure departments comply with state and federal employment discrimination laws. Supervisors approved the proposal on a 4-0 vote. (Supervisor Michael Antonovich was traveling overseas).

"I want to make sure that people who are entitled to return to work have the ability and that we deal with the abuse" of workers' compensation, Molina said.

Cannon, 50, a paramedic who had worked for probation for seven years, praised Molina's call for increased oversight. "It wasn't like I wasn't trying to come back," Cannon said. " . . . They threw out somebody who's got all this experience and education."

In addition to settlements, county officials expect to pay $407 million in workers' compensation to county employees this fiscal year, up from $288 million last fiscal year and $285 million the previous year, according to the county's chief executive's office.

The chief executive's office has not audited the programs recently and could not say how widespread problems may be. Molina said she is particularly concerned about probation because the county has settled several pricey lawsuits involving probation employees recently, but it is not clear whether the department is more troubled than others.

Probation paid $22 million in workers' compensation last fiscal year, according to county records. About 11% of probation's 5,800 employees are receiving workers' compensation, according to Robert Smythe, deputy director of probation's administrative services.

Probation Chief Robert Taylor, who took over the department three years ago, said many of the problems predated him. "You had people seeing they could get away with it because it wasn't being monitored," he said.

Taylor said changes in state law also increased the burden on the department to monitor workers' compensation claims.

About seven years ago, probation workers' compensation claims tripled after state lawmakers included probation officers among those entitled to receive their full salary, tax free, while out due to a workplace injury. The department's Return to Work team, which handled such cases, was understaffed, Taylor said. They were further stretched when state laws changed again in 2004, shifting the burden of helping injured workers from private rehabilitation companies to the county, he said.

As a condition of the Cannon settlement and others earlier this year, probation officials promised to improve outreach to injured workers. Taylor said they doubled the number of staff helping injured workers to 13, added training and reduced staff turnover.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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