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The Doughnut Disability

eye on the news

The Doughnut Disability

Government employees get sick and injured at higher rates than their private-sector peers. February 16, 2017
Economy, finance, and budgets

It must be painful to be a government worker. How else to explain that public-sector employees miss work due to illness or injury at far higher rates than private-sector workers? According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released late last year, government employers reported 5.1 cases of injury or illnesses per 100 workers in 2015, compared with just 3 cases per 100 in the private sector. Because of those higher rates, sick or injured public-sector employees were about 50 percent more likely to miss work or be put on modified duty than private workers.

Certain categories of government workers racked up significant time off in 2016 because they worked in risky fields like public safety. Police and firefighters face unique hazards. Ten out of every 100 cops sustained on-the-job injuries. Among firefighters, the rate was 9.2 per 100. But some private-sector jobs are dangerous, too. Several categories of industrial workers, including those employed by furniture makers and in the construction of motor homes, trailers, and trucks, sustained similar levels of injuries as cops and firefighters, as did those working in certain areas of agriculture and in veterinary services.

Even in jobs where the risks are comparable with those in the private sector, public-sector employees boast significantly higher rates of injury. Private-sector construction firms reported 3.4 injuries per 100 workers in 2015, while municipal governments reported a whopping 7.2 cases per 100 employees. In the subcategory of heavy- and civil-engineering construction, public workers were twice as likely as private workers to miss work or be reassigned duties because of injury. Similarly, among workers in transportation and warehousing, governments reported 7.2 injuries per 100 workers and private firms reported just 4.4. Another stark area of difference: education. Workers in the private education sector averaged two reported injuries per 100 workers, compared with 4.5 among local government education employees.

Some critics argue that higher rates of injury and absenteeism reflect governments’ failure to ensure safe workplaces. One possible reason: when a worker gets hurt or sick in the public sector, the costs ultimately get passed on to taxpayers. By contrast, in the private sector, employers bear the costs, in the form of higher insurance rates, lost productivity, and the time and money spent finding replacements, if needed. Public employees also have a greater incentive to take time off for illness or injury. According to a recent report, about 90 percent of government workers have paid sick leave, compared with about two-thirds of private workers. Taking time off is simply less costly for public workers.

In some jurisdictions, governments offer workers better disability benefits than do private-sector firms. This might encourage government employees to claim injuries more frequently. In New York City, for instance, many police and firefighters qualify to receive a larger pension if they retire with a disability. It’s common for these workers to claim injuries shortly before they’re ready to file for pensions. More than two-thirds of firefighters retire on disability, according to the Empire Center. In Nevada, police who collect disability benefits from the state’s Public Employees Retirement System can work in other industries or jobs—another incentive to file. By contrast, those who receive federal disability payments cannot work full-time.

Through lobbying, public employees have also expanded the categories that count as on-the-job injuries, thereby increasing their ability to file work-related claims. Under Democratic governor Gray Davis, California extended public employees’ access to disability claims with legislation that automatically categorized ailments such as tuberculosis and HIV as work-related, regardless of the circumstances under which an employee contracted them. For years, thanks to state law, police officers have also automatically qualified for disability for lower-back ailments, with the presumption that any such pain was caused by their public duties, even if they were overweight. Municipal officials deride the ailment as the “doughnut disability.”

That’s funny, but the joke is on the taxpayer.

Photo by inhauscreative/iStock

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