Greenwich Time (Sunday)

Disability pension reform talks continue

- By Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

State and union officials have been meeting regularly to deliberate changes to the state’s disability pension system following a CT Insider investigat­ion that found the system suffers from a lack of fiscal guardrails and an absence of enforcemen­t when recipients ignore the rules.

An agreement may be close – and reforms may be able to move forward before the legislativ­e session ends May 8, officials said. If successful, it would mark the first time the state’s disability pension has been reformed in decades.

“We’ve been at this on a weekly basis, and I am confident we will get something done,” state Comptrolle­r Sean Scanlon said during an interview this week. “I think we have already found pieces of common ground. … We may be able to get some things done before this session ends, and that’s my hope.”

“This has been a problem for a long time,” added Scanlon, a Democrat who became the comptrolle­r in 2023. “I don’t want to rush this process, but I also don’t want this to linger, and I don’t want people to sort of lose track of how important it is to get something done.”

In late March, CT Insider reported a series of problems with the state’s disability pension system, which costs state taxpayers $130 million a year providing benefits to nearly 4,200 former state employees who have been injured on or off the job.

The report highlighte­d a series of problems, including many former state employees collecting disability pensions despite working new jobs and making significan­t income; hundreds of recipients not submitting annual surveys used to determine if they still

qualify; and few investigat­ions taking place.

Reporters began the investigat­ion after learning a state senator, Paul Cicarella, received the largest pension in the state in 2022 when he was paid $412,000, largely from one-time retroactiv­e payments.

That investigat­ion found Cicarella became eligible for a pension even though doctors determined he was capable of working a non-exertive job with his partial disability; state officials never found him such a role. He also has been able to collect a disability pension despite questions from state officials, including when they discovered after his injury he worked as a wrestling coach and had opened multiple businesses. His pension was revoked due to such questions but reinstated after he became a senator and later boosted significan­tly.

In an interview with CT Insider prior to the story’s publicatio­n, Cicarella was adamant he received no special treatment as a state senator and is just collecting benefits entitled to him by law. He has declined interview requests since the story ran.

State officials and lawmakers have not said what should happen with Cicarella’s case.

In an effort to enable his team to properly oversee the state’s disability pension system, Scanlon said his office has been having regular conversati­ons with union leadership, legislativ­e leaders, Gov. Ned Lamont and the governor’s Office of Labor Relations.

The potential changes being discussed would enable the comptrolle­r’s office to investigat­e more cases, reduce pension payments when someone fails to report income they are making from a new job and to allow the office to scale back pension payments if someone makes significan­t outside income. Officials are also hashing

out a plan to ensure those whose doctors have determined are capable of working lessexerti­ve jobs are transferre­d to other state jobs or new careers in the private sector rather than being paid by the state to retire with a disability pension.

Scanlon said he and the unions are also working to clarify what current agreements and laws already allow the retirement commission to do, but haven’t yet because of the ambiguity.

The governor said he and the comptrolle­r are on the same page with reforming the system.

“He and I are 100% aligned on getting this right,” Gov. Ned Lamont said during an interview this week.

State union leaders said the conversati­ons with the governor and the comptrolle­r have been constructi­ve.

“We’re always seeking win-win changes that would make Connecticu­t’s pension work better for everyone,” said Bill Garrity, a nurse at UConn Health and president for public employees with AFT-Connecticu­t. “We’ve long believed that there are opportunit­ies in state disability retirement to do just that. That’s why union leaders will continue discussion­s with Comptrolle­r Scanlon and Governor Lamont.”

While some reforms can be settled through collective bargaining alone, others will require legislator­s to change state laws.

Several legislativ­e leaders said they are eager to see what changes the comptrolle­r and union leaders are able to agree to, and that they are waiting to see how those discussion­s play out rather than make

legislativ­e changes independen­tly.

“If he has some [agreement] that requires a statutory change, we would certainly entertain those,” House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said this week.

State Sen. Julie Kushner, the co-chair of the legislatur­e’s Labor Committee, which oversees benefits provided to state employees, said during an interview this week, “I do think that we can as a legislatur­e look at statutes and bring together the parties, and try and find ways to make this happen.”

Republican leaders of the legislatur­e’s Labor and Public Employees Committee have a different view. State Sen. Rob Sampson said during an interview that changes should not have to be negotiated with the state employee unions.

“I will boldly state that I don’t believe that any pension or benefit or insurance that is afforded to state employees ought to be negotiated at all – it ought to be in statute,” Sen. Rob Sampson said during an interview. He said the article “was certainly eyeopening as far as the folks that are making significan­t incomes in the high six-figure range and are still able to receive their disability payments.”

But Scanlon and Democratic lawmakers have determined working with the unions is the best path.

“Nobody wants to see this system being abused – nobody,” said Scanlon. “I don’t see much value in perhaps just fixing [things piecemeal] and not addressing the four other things that I think we need to do, or the five other things or 10 things, or whatever the final number is, if we have an opportunit­y to get this right, now. This system has not been reformed in decades.”

If changes are not able to be agreed upon before May 8, Scanlon is not worried.

“I’m certainly aware of the looming deadline, and we are working at this,” he said. “We have a unique moment in time here, where everyone is bought into the idea of there’s a problem and we need to fix it, and I want to take advantage of that time to make sure we get this right. I don’t want to do a one-off thing and call that a victory and make it seem like we’ve resolved the whole thing. I want to get this right and do a comprehens­ive look at this system to figure out what needs to work better and then do it.”

 ?? Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? State Comptrolle­r Sean Scanlon speaks during a news conference in Hartford on April 2.
Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticu­t Media State Comptrolle­r Sean Scanlon speaks during a news conference in Hartford on April 2.

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