N.Y. inspector general raises concerns over workers’ comp benefit for COs
The review found that New York’s workers’ compensation benefits may be contributing to staffing shortages at state prisons
By Robert Harding
The Citizen, Auburn, N.Y.
NEW YORK CITY — A state inspector general’s report raises concerns over the workers’ compensation lost wage benefits available to corrections officers, a provision the watchdog says “appears to have created a strong motivation for fraud.”
The report followed hundreds of complaints submitted to the state inspector general’s office accusing corrections officers of abusing the lost wage benefits, which are available to employees who sustain a work-related injury.
Under the contract that recently expired, corrections officers may receive up to six months of full pay from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for an injury or illness that occurred in the workplace. The officers do not have to use leave time or other pay through the state Insurance Fund to obtain the benefits.
The inspector general’s review found that the generous workers’ compensation benefits may be contributing to staffing shortages at state prisons. Over a seven-year period, an average of one in three corrections officers at 10% of prisons filed a workers’ compensation claim.
In the 2020-21 fiscal year, DOCCS covered nearly 1.8 million hours of staff time due to workers’ compensation absences — a 61% increase over a 10-year period and a 9% increase compared to the prior fiscal year, according to the report. The inquiry also found that about two out of three workers’ compensation claims submitted by corrections officers in the 2019-20 fiscal year were for injuries unrelated to contact with an incarcerated individual.
“Not only have these increases brought with them a dramatic rise in spending for overtime, but also a dramatic decrease in morale for those officers compelled to perform it,” the inspector general’s office wrote in its report.
The apparent problem is ongoing. According to the inspector general’s findings, eight prisons had 10% or more of their security staff on workers’ compensation leave. Three facilities had 17% of security staff on leave. Most of the claims — about 70% — were for injuries unrelated to contact with incarcerated individuals.
Inspector General Lucy Lang has directed the attorney-in-charge of workers’ compensation fraud and the attorney-in-charge of DOCCS matters to review the “workers’ compensation-fueled staffing crisis to determine the extent of any potential fraud and to identify possible underlying causes.”
“My office is committed to identifying systemic failures that compromise state government’s ability to serve vulnerable New Yorkers,” Lang said. “Our report highlights the volume of workers’ compensation abuse that has occurred under the existing incentive structure of the labor contract. We will continue to do our part to ferret out fraud and encourage anyone with information to reach us at 1-800-DO RIGHT.”
The inspector general’s office acknowledges the dangers of working as a corrections officer. A record number of assaults on staff were reported in 2022 and violence has been increasing in state prisons over the past decade. While the agency says it does not seek to “impugn the integrity of hardworking and dedicated public servants who are legitimately injured at work,” it adds that workers’ compensation claims made by corrections officers “dwarf those of other security personnel.”
The timing of the report’s release is also noteworthy. The unions representing state corrections officers are negotiating a new contract. With those talks ongoing, the inspector general’s office recommends that the state Office of Employee Relations modify the lost wage benefit in the new contract.
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