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Harrop: Free the ‘work beasts’

Published: Monday, April 29, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

We who work through colds, bad backs and low moods – however liberal we might be – have permission to resent those who could hold a job but don’t, preferring to collect disability checks unto the decades.

You see them at the coffee shop, refilling their cups in leisure, or even pumping iron at the gym.

And there are more of them all the time. More than 5 percent of eligible American adults are receiving disability payments from Social Security. Twenty years ago, it was 3 percent. One reason is easier requirements giving more weight to self-made diagnoses of back pain or mental anguish.

Social Security’s disability insurance benefit has morphed into a $124 billion welfare program. Many beneficiaries are older blue-collar workers out of a job, preferring to collect these inflation-adjusted monthly checks to doing some low-wage gig at a hamburger place.

This discussion is not about the severely disabled – workers who’ve suffered grievous strokes or other medical calamities. It is about the reasonably able-bodied playing the scam and the doctors helping them. It’s about a government that doesn’t tighten the rules.

The problem is international. In a celebrated case five years ago, a 29-year-old Canadian on leave from her job at IBM for “major depression” posted pictures on Facebook of her frolicking in a bikini on a beach and partying at a Chippendales bar show – at which point an insurance company stopped sending her monthly checks for sick leave.

As Nathalie Blanchard explained, “In the moment I’m happy, but before and after I have the same problems.”

She said her doctor had advised having more fun and leaving the wintry gloom of Quebec for some sun.

Blanchard’s lawyer argued, “It’s not as if somebody had a broken back and there was a picture of them carrying ... a load of bricks.” If she was shown having a good time, “it could be that she was just trying to escape.”

How did Canada’s “work beasts” (Jack London’s term), reaching for a scotch after a frustrating day at the office, knowing that tomorrow would be much the same, respond to that tale of woe? They were not amused.

Speaking of bricks, a TV station in Rhode Island showed an undercover video of a former Providence firefighter, out on disability at age 48, lifting weights at a local gym. John Sauro was then collecting $3,789 a month free of federal and state income taxes, and the city was paying him $1,757 a month in medical benefits.

Sauro’s lawyer said the former firefighter suffered a torn rotator cuff, making it difficult to lift a person in an emergency situation. Asked to take another look, an orthopedic surgeon concluded that, yes, Sauro couldn’t do what he did before. But that didn’t preclude his doing lots and lots of other things. How about lifting a telephone?

Denmark offers a social safety cushion so plush that large segments of the population can choose a life of repose at the laborers’ expense. About 9 percent of the country’s potential workforce is on lifetime disability.

The Danish government has come up with a smart idea: Assign these folks to “rehabilitation teams,” with experts to train them for jobs they can do and, where warranted, improve their social skills. The government would also prod them into the workforce with state-subsidized jobs.

I’ve seen excellent administrators working out of wheelchairs. For years, a nearby diner employed a mentally disabled man to bus dishes. Everyone, employer and patrons alike, loved him.

America’s work beasts should not have to carry weightlifters who say they’re not up to holding a job. It’s not fair, to say the least.

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board.

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