Battling fires and fighting crime is risky work, to be sure, but those jobs have nothing on writing parking tickets.

Or so it would seem, if workers' compensation claims are any indication.

Over the last four years, employees at the Philadelphia Parking Authority have reported being hurt on the job more than twice as often as city firefighters or police officers.

As a result, the Parking Authority spends far more on settling workplace-injury claims: $1,558 per employee, compared with the firefighters' average of $1,084 and the Police Department figure of $833, according to an Inquirer analysis of city and Parking Authority workers' comp data.

In interviews, officials at the state-run Philadelphia Parking Authority acknowledged that they have a problem.

"Historically, there has been some claim propensity here," said Allan D. Dunkleberger, the authority's risk-management director.

When asked why that was the case, Dunkleberger had a simple answer: "Sometimes people don't want to work."

The agency has spent nearly $5.8 million settling workers' comp claims over the last four years. It is impossible to say how much of that money was spent on fraudulent or flimsy claims, but Dunkleberger described an agency where suspect claims were filed frequently.

"Some people might want to be off, some people might have personal problems that would be made easier if they were off work. There are a significant amount of workers who go on workers' comp as soon as they use up all their vacation time," Dunkleberger said.

He recalled one employee who had filed four separate workers' comp incident reports. The injury in each case? A spider bite.

"No one there has even seen a spider. We've cleaned the building out umpteen times," Dunkleberger said.

"I'm not a mean-spirited man, I don't want to accuse anybody of anything, but there are many flags that go up with some of the claims here."

The Parking Authority's high workers' compensation costs are among many areas where the patronage-rich agency appears to be spending more than it ought to.

Past reports in The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News have identified overstaffing in the authority's administrative ranks, extensive use of pricey public-relations consultants, high salaries for top executives, and a fleet of SUVs for the use of senior authority officials.

Those free-spending ways help explain the Parking Authority's lower-than-anticipated contributions in recent years to the City of Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia, which are supposed to receive profits from the agency's parking-enforcement division.

The first $25 million in annual authority parking-enforcement profits is reserved for city coffers, while funds above that figure are directed to the school district. But only once since the state seized control of the authority in 2001 has it generated more than $25 million in enforcement profits.

"This workers' compensation issue is another demonstration of the culture of the Parking Authority, where they're not really conscious that this is public money," said Helen Gym, a member of Parents United for Public Education.

Under pressure from Parents United and then-Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, the Parking Authority pledged in December to give the city and schools at least $26.25 million this year. Authority spokeswoman Linda Miller said the agency remains confident that it can live up to that commitment.

Although the Parking Authority acknowledged that some workers appear to take advantage of its workers' comp system, officials there objected to having their numbers compared to the City of Philadelphia's. Dunkleberger said a true "parallel comparison" might be impossible given the different nature of the entities.

He also repeatedly noted that many Parking Authority employees do suffer real and easily verifiable injuries.

Parking-enforcement officers on car patrol, for instance, are injured in vehicle accidents. Those on foot walk long miles each shift, and some are bound to slip on ice or twist ankles on cobblestones. Booters, tow-truck operators, and mechanics also are in jobs where they run real risks.

One employee, for instance, was run over by a bus. Another fractured his skull when the claw on a tow truck hit him in the head.

There is only one city department that rivals, and in some years tops, the Parking Authority's workers' comp claim rate: the Streets Department, home to roughly 800 trash collectors who literally lift tons of garbage each day.

It's a job - in Philadelphia and cities across the country - that inevitably leads to a lot of bad backs, muscle strains, cuts, and other injuries both serious and minor.

"How many tons of trash can you lift?" replies Barry Scott, the city's director of risk management, when asked why the Streets Department files so many workers' comp claims. "It's one of the most physically demanding jobs I know of."

Dunkleberger does not believe that parking enforcement is a job that is "inherently going to injure large amounts of people," which is why the number of claims at the authority concerns him.

Still, he thinks the Parking Authority is making progress in reducing both the number of claims and their cost to the authority. That assessment could not be confirmed, however, because the agency says that it does not have records that date back further than four years ago.

One way the agency has sought to cut costs is through a new "alternative duty" program for workers who are too hurt to perform their typical job but are deemed capable of doing at least some work.

The program is reviled by rank-and-file authority workers, and little wonder: It typically consists of standing watch outdoors at authority impoundment lots, often during late-night and early-morning hours.

"Basically you sit there in the cold, in the rain, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. doing nothing," said an authority parking-enforcement officer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. "It's a punishment."

Dunkleberger knows that the Parking Authority's alternative duty is loathed, but he makes no apologies.

"There are some people here who've had literally a dozen workers' comp claims," he said. "They're going to be inherently negative about any method we have for trying to deal with them."

Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.
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