Retired City Workers Collect Pension and Jobless Benefits
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
James DelSignore, the city’s auditor, said he has uncovered half a dozen cases of police officers double dipping, filing unemployment claims after hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65.
The retired officers are then able to enjoy what amounts to a several thousand dollar retirement bonus, at the expense of local taxpayers, he said.
And some Worcester school teachers who receive layoff notices in the spring are also able to collect unemployment through the summer, only to get rehired in the fall, noted one city councilor.
“It is not right that people are able to game the system,” DelSignore said. “This is not what unemployment (insurance) is meant for. It is meant for someone who is down and out.”
Tip of the iceberg
The allegations of double dipping is part of a growing statewide scandal involving the abuse of jobless benefits by a range of public employees, from police officers and teachers to school bus drivers and even senior citizen volunteers.
The Worcester City Council is expected to debate the issue tonight, with City Councilor Konstantina Lukes pushing a proposal that seeks a full tally of retired city workers who have filed jobless claims.
“I am looking for how prevalent it is and how costly it is,” Lukes said.
The double dipping is particularly egregious given the healthy pensions some of the officers in question are now collecting, DelSignore said.
Police officers are able to retire at 80 percent of their active duty pay, calculated as an average of their three best years.
Some officers were able to give themselves a handsome pay raise by tapping into jobless benefits, boosting, for example, a $700 weekly pension to $1,000, DelSignore said.
Some of the officers in question had supplemented their pay through detail work and overtime. As a result, they may have experienced a significant drop in their take home pay when they retired, possibly motivating them to supplement their income with jobless benefits, DelSignore speculated.
Still, DelSignore said he is unsympathetic to claims by some officers that they have the right to file for unemployment since they are no longer able to work after hitting mandatory retirement age.
“They knew when they took the job they would have to retire at 65,” he said. “It just isn’t right.”
School teachers also double dipping?
But it is not just police officers who are dipping into jobless funds meant to help victims of layoffs and budget cuts.
Teachers are also filing unemployment claims after getting layoff notices in the spring realistically knowing they will be “rehired” in the fall.
Far from the pink slips dreaded by private sector employees, these notices are a result of the byzantine school budgeting process that requires warnings even if there is no imminent layoff.
Lukes, a former school committee member, argued it was not a widespread practice, limited to young teachers without tenure.
But DelSignore, the city’s auditor, said he is concerned about this practice as well.
“What is it? Is it summer vacation or is it unemployment?” DelSignore asked. “It needs to be addressed.”
He said he only learned of the double dipping after hearing that some officers, after filing their retirement papers, were making a beeline to the unemployment office to file claims there.
Outrage among local officials
Not alone in his outrage, DelSignore and several other city and town officials from across the state signed onto a recent letter to Gov. Deval Patrick.
The letter demands a closing of state loopholes that has resulted in a range of abuses by public employees of the government unemployment insurance safety net. It also points to a number of abuses seen in towns and cities across the state.
Among the lowlights:
• A retired Lynnfield police officer who works paid details and then files for unemployment when he hits a cap in his pension limiting outside work to $25,000 per year.
• School bus drivers who pick up employment checks for summer vacation, for holidays and even for professional development days when school is not in session
• Retired school teachers brought back to fill gaps in understaffed subjects, who then file for jobless benefits when a replacement is finally found
Such double dipping is also an abuse of a program meant to help those who have lost their jobs in a tough economy, said Andrew Bagley, director of research and public affairs at the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation.
“Anytime you have an example like that it undermines the public confidence that the money is being spent wisely,” Bagley said.
And it is also an indictment of elected leaders, who are supposed to be vigilantly guarding the taxpayers’ money, argues Chris Pinto, vice chairman of the Worcester City Republican Committee.
“Allowing public employees to collect unemployment after they retire is analogous to someone returning goods to a department store, getting money back for them, and shoplifting on the way out,” Pinto said. “The taxpayers are the store owner and the politicians are the security who allow it to happen.”