2015 July - September Secretary-Treasurer's Report: Let's stand and protect our Occupational Disability

Published: Oct 21 2015 9:51AM

Our Railroad Retirement benefits are under attack once again. This time, right-wing ideologues in Congress— lead by the Inspector General (IG)—have put the Occupational Disability program at the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) in its sights. The latest attack on RRB Occupational Disability has its genesis on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), when the New York Times first reported what appeared to be cases of fraudulent disability claims arising on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) in 2008.

At that time, Congress took up an investigation into the apparent fraud perpetuated by a small group of LIRR retirees and their medical advisors to determine if the alleged fraud in Occupational Disability was a wide-spread problem or a localized issue confined to the LIRR. Try as they might to broadly paint our Occupational Disability program as a fraudulent boondoggle, the 2008 investigation found that the alleged fraud was limited to circumstances unique to the LIRR and that no significant anomalies were uncovered outside of the LIRR.

To understand the potential impact of this assault, you need to understand how unique and valuable the RRB Occupational Disability program is for BMWED members. The Occupational Disability program permits railroad workers who can no longer perform their railroad jobs to get on with the rest of their lives without fear of complete financial ruin, although they must provide their own medical insurance. This program, funded solely through payroll taxes paid by railroad workers and their employers, provides an annuity to long service and older railroad workers who cannot perform their current railroad job due to injury, illness or simple, old age wear and tear. Few if any private sector workers have such a benefit. Consequently, we as railroad workers are often seen by certain politicians and ideologues as getting “special” treatment that they believe is “above our station” in life. Put simply, they think that we as working people have it too good.

The outline of this assault on our Occupation Disability program became known on May 1, 2015, when the House Government Operations Subcommittee held a hearing titled, “Is the Railroad Retirement Board Doing Enough to Protect Against Fraud?” The three witnesses were the Retirement Board’s Inspector General (IG), an opponent of the current Occupational Disability program; a representative of the GAO, an agency that had been critical of the RRB; and the “public” member (Chairman) of the RRB.

Following the hearing, the Carrier Member of the RRB jumped on the bandwagon, proposing the RRB adopt 22 recommendations made by the IG regarding administration of the Occupational Disability program. Then, the RRB, acting through the Carrier Member and the Public Member Chairman—over the strong objections of the Labor Member—adopted the IG’s proposed recommendations. The IG, with the support of the Carrier Member and the Public Member, is pushing for, among other adverse changes, a two-year limitation on receipt of the disability annuity. What would happen to a former railroad worker after those two years if he or she couldn’t obtain a total and permanent disability is something the IG and his allies have failed to address.

If this coordinated attack on our Occupational Disability is successful, we will wind up with an Occupational Disability benefit that is difficult or impossible to obtain, will be more costly for the applicant to pursue, and will provide benefits for only a short period of time. Of course, neither the IG nor the Carrier or Public Members of the Board have spent a lifetime walking on ballast, exposed to the debilitating effects of long-term repetitive motion, and working outside in weather extremes that can cumulatively lead to BMWED members being unable to perform their railroad jobs after decades of wear and tear.

We again face trying times with our RRB Occupational Disability benefits, and powerful forces are arrayed against us. In response, President Simpson has appointed a committee to develop strategies and coordinate our fight against these unprecedented ideologically centered attacks on our disability benefits.

Occupational Disability provides a bridge for our sick and injured brothers and sisters to reach retirement without entering poverty. BMWED will not stand by and allow these attacks to go unanswered. The Brotherhood will continue to do everything in its power to defeat these attacks, including mobilizing the membership to save our Occupational Disability benefits. I know I can count on you to stand in solidarity as BMWED Brothers and Sisters to protect our hard-earned benefits from this politically motivated attack. An injury to one is an injury to all!