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Missed opportunity

September 22, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

The New York Times published a long investigative piece yesterday on what it described as a “disability epidemic” among retired Long Island Rail Road employees. The article opened with the following information:

To understand what it’s like to work on the railroad — the Long Island Rail Road — a good place to start is the Sunken Meadow golf course, a rolling stretch of state-owned land on Long Island Sound.

During the workweek, it is not uncommon to find retired L.I.R.R. employees, sometimes dozens of them, golfing there. A few even walk the course. Yet this is not your typical retiree outing.

These golfers are considered disabled. At an age when most people still work, they get a pension and tens of thousands of dollars in annual disability payments — a sum roughly equal to the base salary of their old jobs. Even the golf is free, courtesy of New York State taxpayers.

With incentives like these, occupational disabilities at the L.I.R.R. have become a full-blown epidemic.

Virtually every career employee — as many as 97 percent in one recent year — applies for and gets disability payments soon after retirement, a computer analysis of federal records by The New York Times has found.

The details that one learns as the article continues are fascinating.

I have been a close observer of the Long Island Rail Road since birth. My father commuted to Manhattan every workday for years from Westbury, Long Island, and riding the LIRR impressed itself on my infant brain as the ultimate act of adulthood. I loved reading, or having read to me, a humorous book about the LIRR whose best feature was that you could start from either end. At the middle, you would have to flip it over and start again from the other side. This was meant to represent the most important ritual of LIRR ridership: changing at Jamaica. The point was that the railroad had electrified trains from Penn Station in Manhattan out to Queens and diesel engines from Queens to Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Therefore, a commuter would have to change at Jamaica (the county seat of Queens County and the site of Queens’ principal LIRR station) in order to switch between electric and diesel trains. Changing was fun, or at least I thought so, and flipping the book over was fun too.

The best part of a trip on the LIRR was watching the conductor do his (they were all men then) work. He would pull out his hole puncher to validate or punch the tickets as he worked his way through the train, and he would even sell tickets to those who didn’t have monthly commuter passes or tickets bought in the station. The selling of a ticket necessitated repeated hole punching, as he had to punch holes to indicate the beginning and end stations, the cost in dollars and cents, and countless other important items. I admired the self-assurance of the conductor as he punched away. He always knew the fares. He knew everything. He was, in fact, my hero. I had no doubts about what I wanted to be when I grew up — a LIRR conductor.

And now I learn that had I in fact become one, I could be retired by now, collecting my pension and disability pay, playing golf daily. Where should I play today? Sunken Meadow? Bethpage Black? Sigh.

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