Workers’ compensation costs the City of Berkeley between $5 and $6 million each year, according to a report presented at last night’s City Council meeting. The figures, although not new, seemed to startle councilmembers who said they were determined to bring the cost down.

“There needs to be a cultural change at the actual work level,” said Councilmember Linda Maio. “I was floored when I saw we are paying out $5 million a year in claims. We can’t do that.”

Other councilmembers pointed out the concentration of claims in a few departments. The most claims come from the fire department, where last year 28 of the 118 sworn employees filed indemnity claims. The police department accounts for the second highest number, with 24 of 157 sworn employees filing claims last year.

“The problem is fire, police, parks and public works,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “And the health department is trying to get into the big five. There hasn’t been any measurable success in those areas. We have to figure out what’s going wrong.”

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak pointed out that the concentration of costs goes beyond identifying individual departments.

“We have 3% of our employees — 38 employees — who have generated 20% of the claims,” Wozniak said. “Are they working in an unsafe environment, do they not have the right equipment, are they just unlucky? You have to find out why and there should be a corrective action plan filed.”

Margarita Zamora, senior human resources analyst, said some departments had introduced a “buddy system” where a supervisor was paired with an individual to reduce the “recidivism rate”.

Both Maio and Councilmember Max Anderson said that other local employers had found significant success in reducing workers’ comp by having a concerted effort to introduce a more safety-oriented culture. Maio cited Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory while Anderson pointed to Bayer.

Maio and Wozniak said that a council subcommittee should be formed to address the issue, but the council decided last night to refer it to Acting City Manager Christine Daniel, and consider a subcommittee at a later date.

“We had some success reducing claims about a decade ago,” Daniel said. “What we need to do is go back and refresh that effort from a decade ago and see if we can get a reduced number of claims.”

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...