BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — In 2008, an Erie County deputy who fractured his leg after he slipped on a pat of butter cost the county more than $300,000 in a workers’ compensation claim.
In 2011, a corrections officer at the Alden Correctional Facility who sustained injuries “to multiple body parts” when he fell while attempting to sit in a chair cost the county about $460,000 in a claim. In 2012, another holding center deputy who slipped on ice cost the county about $470,000 in a claim.
Those are just a few of more than 600 workers’ compensation claims filed by Erie County Sheriff’s Office employees since 2005. In total, the claims amount to about $20 million in taxpayer money because the county self-funds all claims.
The injuries run the gamut: broken bones related to scuffles with inmates; back injuries related to falling or slipping off desk chairs or bending over to pick up a piece of paper; and cuts, bruises, and fractured bones from slips and falls on the job.
“This is a very dangerous field where people are injured on a very regular basis,” said Erie County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff John Greenan. “Unfortunately, it’s part of the job.”
NEWS10’s sister station in Buffalo filed Freedom of Information law requests to access records showing the hidden costs of lawsuits and outside counsel to defend the sheriff’s office. Added all together with the compensation claims, these hidden totaled more than $29 million since 2005.
Those funds would be enough to fund about three decades of the Erie County Youth Bureau’s operating budget, which includes contractual expenses of $15,000 or less to dozens of youth groups including Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Kids Escaping Drugs.
“These are real dollars that could go a long way for the taxpayers of Erie County,” said Erie County Majority Leader Timothy Meyers, who has been working to bring more transparency to the operations of the sheriff’s office. Although Erie County taxpayers rarely get a glimpse of these costs, some localities—such as the City of Buffalo—regularly report at least settlements to council members.
“I dare someone say that we don’t have to have a conversation about this,” Meyers said. He said he would like to see some of this information reported to the legislature. In fact, he has already proposed a resolution that would require the County Attorney’s Office to provide regular updates on legal fees and settlements.
Greenan said a lot of these costs are out of their hands, particularly the lawsuits and settlements. As for the workers’ compensation claims, which make up a lion’s share of the total, Greenan said there is a process that all claims go through.
“We certainly make every effort to determine if claims of injury to our employees are legitimate,” Greenan said. “We’re restricted in how much of that we can do. We do investigate each and every case but really under New York State Law, there’s a presumption that the individual is injured.”
According to Greenan, their hands are often tied by what medical experts conclude, despite having an outside medical firm that provides the sheriff’s office with medical expertise when reviewing the claims. The number of contested claims each year was not available.
“If that individual has a doctor that says that they injured their tailbone by falling out of a chair and they can’t work for the next year, we are limited in how we can contest those medical findings,” Greenan said. While outside medical advice can sometimes contest claims, Greenan says, “that’s a very difficult process to do.”
At times, Greenan said they have presented video evidence to contest an injury. Even so, the burden of proof weighs more heavily on the county than on the workers. Reviews of claims can take up to three months to complete, he said. Medical records must be subpoenaed, sometimes from multiple doctors, which he said is the biggest obstacle to making quicker determinations.
“And quite often the courts are more likely to find in favor of the physician for the deputy than they are from some independent physician that we have review the medical records,” Greenan said.
In addition, Greenan said state law requires an injured worker to be paid full salary without being taxed at the state level and the position of any injured employee must be backfilled, which costs the county even more that the actual claim.
“We have to pay their full salary, and that salary is not taxed by New York State for income tax purposes,” Greenan said. “So, in effect, you have injured deputies who are making more money being out than they are actually being at work.”