Retirement Security:

Use of the Railroad Retirement Board Occupational Disability Program across the Rail Industry

GAO-10-351R: Published: Feb 4, 2010. Publicly Released: Mar 8, 2010.

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We recently reported that Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) workers applied for U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) occupational disability benefits at a rate 12 times higher than workers from the other commuter railroads covered under the Railroad Retirement Act. RRB provides an occupational disability benefit to eligible workers whose physical or mental impairments prevent them from performing their specific railroad jobs. For example, a railroad engineer who cannot frequently climb, bend, or reach, as required by the job, may be found occupationally disabled. On March 18, 2009, Congress asked us to conduct a systematic review of RRB's occupational disability program. Per our discussions following the release of our September 2009 report on LIRR and commuter rail workers' experience with the program, Congress refined its request. It told us that its primary interest was quickly determining whether unusual patterns in claims like those exhibited at LIRR exist elsewhere across the rail industry, including class I, II, and III railroads. This letter formally conveys the information we provided during a briefing with Congress on December 2, 2009. In summary, we found that no other rail employers in our analysis had the consistently high rates of occupational disability awards that existed at LIRR from calendar years 2004 to 2007, the most current data available at the time of our review.

In our analysis, we found that no other rail employers had the consistently high rates of occupational disability awards, relative to the number of eligible workers, that existed at LIRR. A small number of employers exhibited high rates in one or more years, but LIRR was the only consistent outlier across the rail industry for each year from 2004 to 2007 in terms of workers' use of RRB's occupational disability program. For example, in 2006, LIRR had an occupational disability rate of 17.1 percent compared to the industry-wide average of 3.7 percent. While LIRR workers did receive fewer occupational disability awards in calendar year 2008 than 2007, they still received twice as many awards as workers from the other seven commuter railroads combined.

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