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.
A Disability Epidemic Among a Railroad’s Retirees
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. Since 2000, those records show, about a quarter of a billion dollars in federal disability money has gone to former L.I.R.R. employees, including about 2,000 who retired during that time.
The L.I.R.R.’s disability rate suggests it is one of the nation’s most dangerous places to work. Yet in four of the last five years, the railroad has won national awards for improving worker safety.