The percentage of Long Island Rail Road employees being awarded disability benefits has dropped by nearly 28 percentage points since authorities began to investigate the issue three years ago, federal figures obtained by Newsday show.
Officials say the decline is a testament to safeguards put in place to prevent fraud, and perhaps also a sign of LIRR retirees' fear of getting caught cheating the system.
In 2008, the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board approved 98 percent of disability claims coming from retiring LIRR workers, figures obtained from the board under the Freedom of Information Act show. By 2010, that figure was down to 85 percent.
And in the first 11 months of the board's 2011 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, slightly more than 70 percent of disability applications coming from the LIRR were approved, the figures show.
For the same period of the 2011 fiscal year, the board approved almost 93 percent of disability applications coming from employees at all the nation's railroads, including the LIRR, the figures show.
The number of disability applications from LIRR employees to the retirement board also has fallen -- from 253 in 2006 to 184 in 2008 to 130 last year. They bounced back somewhat this year, with 164 applications submitted through Sept. 1, the board's figures show.
LIRR president Helena Williams said the drop in applications shows that "employees are getting the message that you better not be pursuing these benefits in any fraudulent manner."
She pointed to the decline in approvals as evidence that several reforms enacted within the LIRR and at the retirement board have worked.
Since 2008, the LIRR, working with an independent monitor assigned by then-Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, has stepped up ethics training regarding disability fraud and is working more closely with the retirement board to paint a more accurate picture of potential retirees' medical history.
Responding to calls from the LIRR and from federal lawmakers on Long Island, the retirement board also enacted several reforms in 2008, including independent medical screening of applicants from Long Island and closer review of previously approved LIRR disability cases.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who led the call in Washington for the system's overhaul, said the enacted changes "dragged the astronomical number of approvals back down to earth."
"In this case, sunlight was the disinfectant and rigorous oversight was the mop," Schumer said.
The heads of three of the LIRR's largest unions, the United Transportation Union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, did not respond to requests for comment. Arthur Maratea, vice president of the Transportation Communications Union, representing LIRR ticket sellers, declined to comment.
The alleged fraud's costs do not have a direct affect on LIRR riders' pocketbooks, Williams said. The system is largely funded by contributions of workers, who do not receive Social Security.
"Whenever you have stuff like this come up, people lose trust," he said. "They look at their conductor and think, 'This guy's probably just waiting to claim carpal tunnel syndrome or lower back pain and waltz off to a hundred-thousand-dollar retirement.' "
Henderson noted that, along with reforms, another factor in the decline in LIRR workers' disability applications is that the pool of employees covered under a now-closed pension plan, unique to the LIRR, is lowered each year by retirements.
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who worked with Schumer to enact reforms to the disability system, said a more sweeping overhaul should be considered, especially with tales of "disabled" LIRR employees frequenting tennis courts.
"The only response that a reasonable person can have to that is outrage," Bishop said. "And I'm glad they're being brought to justice."