REPEAT ABSENCES

Workers Comp Commissioners Take Friday Afternoons Off

04/21/08


Friday isn’t “casual dress” day for state workers’ compensation commissioners; it appears to be “take the entire afternoon off while still on the clock” day.

In a telephone survey that Journal Inquirer reporters conducted on three nonconsecutive Fridays in March and April, nearly all of the 12 commissioners assigned to the panel’s six regional offices were said to have left for the day by 1:30 p.m.

The “trial” commissioners serve five-year terms and are paid between $140,779 and $145,780 per year, while the Workers’ Compensation Commission chairman, who acts as chief administrator and does not try cases, is paid $155,779 annually.

By custom and tradition, the “trial” commissioners, who are charged with ensuring that workers get prompt payment of lost-time work benefits and medical expenses for on-the-job injuries, are supposed to use Friday afternoons to read briefs and write their opinions in the cases they’ve heard.

But the staffers who answered telephone calls placed to the commission’s offices across the state responded to requests to speak with each of the commissioners assigned to those offices by saying he or she had “gone for the weekend” or “gone for the day,” that the commissioner was “not here this afternoon,” “unavailable,” or “not in today,” or that the official would be “back Monday.”

In the single instance that a commissioner did come to the telephone, Leonard S. Paoletta explained that he was retiring that very day.

In another try, a staffer initially volunteered that she thought Commissioner Jack Goldberg was in the Middletown office “writing decisions” and put the reporter on hold. She resumed the conversation without confirming that Goldberg actually was there, but added that she had been “instructed to tell you to call the chairman’s office.”

That was a reference to John A. Mastropietro of Watertown, a former Republican state chairman who was named to lead the commission by ex-Gov. John G. Rowland. Mastropietro had served as Rowland’s campaign manager.

Mastropietro, asked about the commissioners’ repeated afternoon absences, cautioned that the commissioners would assume the reporters’ calls were about cases before them and that they are not permitted to have such “ex-parte” conversations.

Told that the reporters identified themselves as such when asked, and if prompted further, said they didn’t want to speak to the commissioners about specific cases but rather poll them about their opinions on pending legislation, Mastropietro said that “most of the commissioners probably would respond by saying, ‘Call the chairman’s office.”’

 

Personal Time

When asked why all but one of the commissioners didn’t respond at all, Mastropietro suggested that they might have been out of the office on personal or vacation time.

“With respect to anyone not there on a Friday afternoon, as long as they have accredited that time — meaning either to their personal leave time or their vacation time — if they have done that, they are meeting their obligations and requirements,” he said.

But when asked if any of the commissioners said to have left on each of the three Fridays had notified his office that they had put in for either personal or vacation time off, Mastropietro responded, “No.”

However, he had just written a memo to the commissioners lauding them for their efforts at reducing a case backlog in recent years by “double docketing” proceedings and taking work home.

Meanwhile, one commission employee, who requested anonymity, said regional office staffers had complained to their bosses about the early exits on Fridays — and, in one instance, lodged a whistleblower complaint challenging the hours a supervisor claimed to have worked.


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