DISABILITY PANEL HOLDS PUBLIC HEARINGS

OCTOBER 19, 2012: Disability pensions, always a cutting-edge source of press articles, mostly negative, was the subject under discussion at a public hearing of the Special Commission on Disability Pensions in Worcester yesterday.

This was the second such hearing this week. This first was held on Tuesday the 16th at the State House.

Yesterday’s hearing, which was held at the UMass Medical School was opened by a full-scale presentation by leaders of the 4,500 member Mass. Correction Officers Federation Union (MCOFU).

Chuck Dwyer, Legislative Chairman of MCOFU, displayed an x-ray printout of a correction officer with a shank stuck in his head. Although the shank was removed and the officer now recovered, it was a vivid demonstration of the everyday danger that correction officers face, a number of whom have been forced to retire with disability pensions.

A number of public safety union officials testified at this hearing, one of whom was Ray McGrath a retired Worcester police officer who now works for the National Association of Government Employees NAGE. McGrath defended our state’s disability law, saying that public safety employees need this protection, otherwise it would be impossible to recruit police officers or firefighters. “No one wants to retiree on a disability but if they have a disabling injury they have no choice he said.

A recent series of articles in the Worcester Telegraph and Gazette had been critical of disability pensions. The Commission did not schedule this meeting as a response to the articles, but rather met in Worcester to give others an opportunity to address the Disability Commission outside of Boston.

Roberta Schaefer, Ph.D., President of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, gave each Commission member a report, which painted disability pensions as a taxpayers problem, especially the firefighters’ cancer presumption law.

Schaefer referred to a 2006 Blue Ribbon Panel of the Public Employees Pension Classification System as a source of much of her data.
Association President Ralph White, a member of the Disability Commission criticized Schaefer for her testimony saying her report was an insult to public safety representatives. “You heard the testimony of people who put their lives on the line when they leave home and go to work, and you came here with a report that questions the cost of their disability. That’s an insult to these men and women,” he said. “The Blue Ribbon report is also an insult. Just look at the names on that report.”

The earlier hearing on Monday at the State House was similar to Worcester’s, in that public safety worker representatives defended our disability law and those loyal employees whose disability pensions are “barely above the poverty level as they age some 20 years after retiring.”

Jay Colbert, the Professional Firefighters Legislative Chief and his associates pointed out the hazards to which firefighters are exposed during their career. State Firefighters President Ed Kelly, the AFL-CIO representative on the Disability Commission cited the many funerals he has attended on behalf of firefighters who have retired on disability, but whose lives were shortened because of their exposure to toxic conditions.
Ned Merrick, a former Brookline Police Lieutenant and retired Plainville Police Chief testified at length on behalf of the necessity of our disability law and his experience as a public safety police representative. “It’s a good law. It’s fair and a protection that’s well worth any cost to our retirement systems,” he said.

Also in attendance at both the Boston and Worcester hearings was Denis Devine, President of the Mass. Association of Contributory Retirement Systems (MACRS). In Worcester, Devine spoke at length of the hazards of public safety workers. “We have a good disability law. It’s fair to the taxpayers and vital to protecting those who protect us,” he said.
Co-chaired by Senator William Brownsberger and Representative John Scibak, the disability hearings were held in a fair, impartial manner. Everyone present was given ample opportunity to testify. In fact, the Worcester hearing was almost three hours long.

The Commission is expected to hold further meetings in preparation for a report, probably before the end of the year.

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