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Southern California Public Radio – KPCC – reviewed hundreds of Probation Department workers’ compensation files from 2010-2012 and claims it found dozens of questionable cases. Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers responded by stressing that the vast majority of workers’ compensation claims are legitimate, but he has taken several steps to crack down on questionable injuries since taking office in 2011. Since then, the number of probation staff on disability has dropped by one third, Powers says. Questionable workers’ compensation and disability claims, he says, were one of the first things the L.A. County Board of Supervisors asked him to tackle when he came to probation.

When Powers started on the job, 15 percent of the workforce–about 750 people–were out on workers’ compensation or reassigned due to on-the-job injuries, he says. “It makes my blood boil.” Powers maintains the problem of fraudulent claims is “epidemic” in the department–although officials there say they don’t have hard numbers on the percentage of claims believed to be illegitimate. Cynthia Maluto, who oversees return to work efforts at probation says “I’ve looked up cases where the employee will be off a whole year, come back for one day and then go off another year and come back, file another claim, [and] could be off for two years. And in the 20 years of service they probably worked three months.”

To tackle the problem, the supervisors ordered Powers to use an investigative model first developed by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. First, he beefed up the unit that investigates claims. He told the team to “start scrutinizing doctors’ notes, questioning restrictions and limitations and frankly, if necessary, videotaping staff doing things they say they can’t,” Powers recalls. “Before I got here, when employees were injured they could take cruises, they could come and go as they pleased,” he says. “We put in a requirement they have to be home between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.” Probation now has a dedicated team checking up on employees who are out on workers’ compensation and disability claims. The team makes home visits to make sure employees are there when they should be. It follows up on claims it considers questionable, and can mount challenges based on its investigations.

Alex Rossi of the L.A. County CEO’s office says the number of claims skyrocketed after 2000, when probation officers became eligible for 4850–a law designed to counterbalance the risk of working in public safety with up to one year of full, tax-free salary while on workers’ compensation leave.

Union steward Cline says Powers’ move to crack down on workers who are faking injuries is more about politics than tackling a major departmental problem. Many workers stay out for long stretches simply waiting to get care within the slow-moving workers’ compensation system, Cline says. “I see those cases more than I see the others,” she adds. But the probation department’s management sees qualified success in the crackdown– Powers says since he took office, the number of employees out on workers’ compensation has gone down by roughly one third, from about 750 to about 500. And he says the number of 4850 cases has dropped by 25 percent.

When it comes to gaming the system, probation chief Powers says one of his biggest problems is staff taking out separate private disability policies. “Several times we’ve found employees who will falsify medical notes and send them to these insurance companies and tell them they are injured and off duty for months at a time,” he says. The problem, says Powers, is that “they are not off duty. They are drawing a paycheck at the same time they are collecting a check from these insurance companies. And some of these employees will have two, three, four separate policies.” This can be lucrative, with workers doubling or tripling their salaries, according to Powers. “We know everyone who has those policies and we are working with the insurance companies to cross check those policies,” he says. That cooperation has resulted in the arrests of two probation workers for allegedly collecting disability checks while they were still on the job, Powers says.