NORTH CHICAGO, IL — The city of North Chicago is attempting to revoke the pensions of three retired police officers who were disabled after being injured on the job.
The move comes after the city invoked a rarely – if ever – used provision in state law that allows it to recall retired officers in the event of an emergency which, in North Chicago’s case, was its inability to fully staff its now-closed 911 dispatch center.
In an effort to save money, the city decided in 2018 to close its dispatch center and consolidate operations with the one in Mundelein, a process that was finalized last month. The city said between generally low unemployment and the the planned closure, it struggled to adequately staff the dispatch center, at one point having only six employees available to cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The city is pushing forward with the revocations because it, “would be entirely unfair to the pensioners who upheld their responsibilities under the Pension Code if the pensioners who ignored their recall notices faced no consequences for their actions,” the city said in a statement to the News-Sun.
The pensioners argue that the staffing issue wasn’t a bona fide emergency and that, even if it was, they should be excused for medical reasons.
“It’s aggravating,” said Emir King, one of the three pensioners. “This is the city that I got hurt protecting, mind you. I understand they have to run the city, but …. even if I wanted to go back, I’m still disabled. I’m still 1,400 miles away. What do you expect me to do?”
Chief of Staff Deb Waszak said she can understand why the pensioners might feel betrayed, but the city had to do something to keep the dispatch center fully staffed.
“We were trying to find the best option and, at the time, it seemed like this was the best option,” Waszak said. “We’ve been totally disrupted, and we still need to provide these services, and look for ways to do so within our budget.”
The city offered financial incentives to encourage dispatchers to stay on until the end, according to Waszak and city attorney Ben Gehrt. Eight dispatchers, two of whom were hired after the initial recall was issued, took the deal, but with vacations and other paid time off, the city couldn’t always fill the gaps, Waszak said.
The dispatch center had 10 full-time and two part-time employees prior to this, Waszak said.
To an effort to address those staffing needs, last year the city recalled nine pensioners, one of whom the city excused right away, Gehrt said. The city then filed paperwork with the pension board, seeking to have the pensions of the other eight revoked since they didn’t report for duty, and some didn’t respond at all.
Since then, two of the pensioners reported and have met their obligation to the city, Gehrt said. Each pensioner worked two days, Waszak said. She didn’t know how many hours they worked each day.
The city also agreed to excuse three more pensioners, Gehrt said.
The final three remain in limbo: The city won’t accept the reasons they provided, but the pension board isn’t meeting because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It’s “unsettling,” said Lawrence Wade, who retired in 2003 after 24 years with the North Chicago Police Department. He went on disability after he tore the cartilage and ligament in his knee when a man he was arresting slipped while attempting to walk down a steep embankment.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Wade said. “Since the pandemic, I told them my conditions. I don’t have a spouse. I’m out here alone, an entity of one. If they take my money, I’m indigent and probably homeless. It’s very stressful.”
Wade said he raised concerns about COVID-19, something he said he’s particularly worried about because he has asthma and high blood pressure, putting him at greater risk for complications.
The city isn’t accepting COVID-19 as an excuse because the pandemic was already underway when the city issued another recall notice in mid-March and the pensioners expressed a willingness to work, according to a letter from Gehrt to the attorney representing the pensioners.
Work at the dispatch center does not involve any public contact and the city has taken steps to protect its workers, including spraying an antiviral fog in the dispatch center, Gehrt said in the letter.
The city also didn’t accept the medical excuses Trent Robinson provided.
Robinson, who was injured in 2004 after 18 years with North Chicago, said he lost one of his eyes during a 2017 accident playing basketball; he said he’s also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since the accident. He also raised concerns about COVID-19 because of his diabetes.
The conditions Robinson cited do not prevent him from working, Gehrt said in the letter.
Robinson, who does managerial consulting, agreed that he can do some types of work but with his medical conditions, he said he wasn’t comfortable dispatching, a job where the lives of others could be on the line.
King, who retired in April 2016 after 11 years on the force, said he wasn’t unwilling to report but initially he had been in quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, and then had to have an emergency brain operation to remove a cyst. He was also subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia.
He said his central complaint is that the recall is “so impractical,” particularly for him and Robinson who live out of state. The officers also do not have the required certification, though the city said it would provide training.
The retired officers would not receive any additional compensation beyond their pensions, Gehrt said in the letter.
The nine pensioners have collectively received more than $3.8 million in pension benefits, the city said in a statement.
“In exchange for the $3.8 million of pension benefits, the City asked the pensioners to work a few shifts, only on days and times when the dispatch center was understaffed,” the statement said.
The city is also “not responsible” for their “personal choice to live out of state and so would not provide any reimbursement for the costs related to traveling back to North Chicago or housing while there, according to Gehrt’s letter.
What the city is doing “is wrong,” Wade said.
“I feel that I’m being picked upon because the city is in a financial crisis,” he said. “I don’t’ appreciate them picking on guys that served the city for years. I served the city, I was injured. … I’m not angry with them so much as I just don’t understand it.”
From The Chicago Tribune