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Spotlight: 1996

Healthy workers were costing taxpayers $33 million in disability pensions

Doctors had cleared them to return to work, yet they kept collecting checks, golfing, and even working other jobs.

Photographs from the 1996 series caught people on disability pensions working (and playing) hard.John Tlumacki/Globe staff / File

Spotlight Team: Gerard O’Neill (editor), Dick Lehr, Mitchell Zuckoff, and Cindy RodrÍguez (researcher)

In 1981 and 1982, Spotlight published exposés on Massachusetts’ dysfunctional disability pension system. According to the reports, some injured workers who deserved to be paid were ending up on welfare, while others gamed the system and kept cashing checks. The state Legislature passed a sweeping reform bill in 1982 that created an oversight agency to clean up the mess. The problems, it seemed, would be solved.

But more than a decade later, Spotlight editor Gerard O’Neill received a tip: The disability pension system, a source said, had run amok all over again. O’Neill assigned reporters Mitchell Zuckoff and Dick Lehr to figure out what was going on.


The resulting project, which would become a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was fueled by a combination of old-school, shoe leather reporting and modern (at the time) computing technology. Through an aggressive campaign of public records requests, Lehr, Zuckoff, researcher Cindy Rodríguez, and Globe outside counsel Jonathan Albano compiled a vast trove of state records of supposedly disabled public workers. Then they recruited a technician from the Globe’s IT department to build a database to organize the information.

The database yielded a strange insight. Hundreds of “disabled” workers — the team identified 305 such workers and believed there may have been thousands more — had been cleared by doctors to return to work, yet they remained on disability, collecting tax-free benefits year after year. In the prior decade alone, the liability to taxpayers had run up to $33 million.

And that’s where the shoe leather came in. Zuckoff and Globe photographer John Tlumacki flew to Florida — where a surprising number of the healthy disabled workers seemed to reside. Tlumacki captured photos of these supposedly incapacitated men swinging drivers on the golf course and leaping into boats to go fishing. Tlumacki and Zuckoff also observed some of them reporting to new jobs, which should have made them ineligible for their Massachusetts disability pensions. (The pensions were meant only for public workers so injured on the job that they could no longer earn a living.)


Next, the team checked in on the government agencies tasked with eliminating such abuse. It soon became clear that the state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration — the oversight agency created by the 1982 legislation — was a “paper tiger without even much paper,” as Lehr says today. It did not keep anything close to comprehensive records of pensioners, had little control over the dozens of local retirement boards that managed individual cases, and hardly ever enforced a thing.

The series’ impact was felt even before it was finished. Governor William Weld assigned his secretary of administration and finance, future governor Charlie Baker, to clean up the mess. “Weld Wants Pension Abuse Prosecuted,” read a banner headline in the Globe on the day the project’s third installment was published. “The administration moved fast,” Zuckoff says.

And the Legislature soon followed. Within months, it had passed a new reform law designed to patch up the system once and for all. At the bill-signing ceremony, Weld offered Zuckoff the ceremonial pen. But with his editor in mind, the reporter turned it down out of deference to journalistic propriety. “Gerry would have killed me,” he says.

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