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As you might have noticed by now, the D.C. government is watching its wallet. So District officials are planning to keep closer tabs on a character who at times inspires pity, at other times suspicion: The injured city worker.

One of them, Gaynell Nixon, tries not to go downstairs. When she absolutely has to descend the stairs of her two-story home in Brandywine, Md., it’s a production. She has to hold on to the banister with both hands, and move turtle slow. Her husband remodeled the banister with handholds, which helps, but the whole process is still exhausting.

Back in the winter of 1996, Nixon was a lot more spry. One day, working as a housing manager for the D.C. Housing Authority, she put that spryness to work. A snowstorm had hit, and Nixon remembers that a cash-strapped District government didn’t have enough money to clear the walks in front of her East Capitol Street office. When she encountered a particularly deep patch of snow, she leaped over. She landed in a hole. It was shallow, but enough to damage her right foot. For 14 years, Nixon has been on workers’ compensation.

According to the Office of Risk Management, which oversees the city’s workers’ comp program, in fiscal year 2010, there were 2,140 claims being paid out by the D.C. government. Though some of the claims only cover medical costs, the District paid over $24 million for its weakened workers last year.

To listen to risk management boss Phillip A. Lattimore, that’s about to change. One of the goals of Mayor Vince Gray‘s administration, he says in a statement, is to “reduce the number of employees who are on workers’ compensation.” The administration believes that it can save millions.

To that end, Lattimore says his office will “soon” be instituting a new back-to-work program. The program will, among other things, “require workers to submit an annual affidavit of earnings.” The city will then figure out if there “should be a reduction or termination of workers’ compensation benefits in light of an employee’s ability to work.” In other words, if the District catches a worker doing more part-time work than they’re supposed to be able to do, they’ll be cut off. Similar programs have been tried before, but Gray has proposed bolstering this one with a $1 million budget.

Eric May, a lawyer who has represented private-sector workers in compensation claims, doesn’t disagree with the effort: “I think that it’s a good concept if they can apply it well.”

Nearly 400 D.C. government workers who are on workers’ compensation still technically have positions with the District, according to public records. They’re listed on the District’s payroll tally because the city hopes they’ll eventually come back. Their salaries show that nine made over $100,000 before they went out, and 21 made over $70,000. The top earner on the list made $197,000. The employees can be paid up to 75 percent of their annual salary, but under city law, can’t be paid more than about $5,000 a month, or $60,000 a year.

Laura Duncan, a doctor who once worked for St. Elizabeths Hospital, is the workers’ comp recipient who once pulled down $197,000. She says she hasn’t had much contact with the city and that the program has been poorly managed. “The District government got so many problems,” she says. “They got them in house, out house, and no house.” Duncan says she’s not able to work because of several soft tissue injuries.

Duncan isn’t fibbing about D.C.’s workers’ comp apparatus, technically known as the Disability Compensation Program, having problems. The D.C. Auditor accused ORM of having shoddy oversight of the fund that supplies workers’ comp money, in a March report. But the agency has new leadership now, and a back-to-work effort that would require healthy workers to return would make that leadership look fiscally responsible in the wake of the previous mess.

The D.C. Employment Justice Center thinks so, too. In a statement, the activists say they generally support “the idea of returning injured workers who are able to work to jobs.” But they’re more interested in the survival of those who are truly hurt: “We are concerned that $1 million is being paid to fund this program instead of to individuals who need life sustaining medical treatment and poverty preventing wage replacement.”

Nixon says that’s right. “People think everyone on workers’ compensation is frauding the system,” she says. She points out that most of those on workers’ comp are actually struggling to get medical care and financial support from a city that regularly denies it. Nixon, herself, isn’t exactly making out like a bandit: She receives a $160 check every two weeks, she says.

City officials weren’t able to supply a breakdown of who’s getting what. But the risk management office says that for 2010, the average cost per injury per claim was $11,565.87. That doesn’t exactly sound like a windfall; in most cases, it’s barely a year’s worth of rent.

Photo by Matt Dunn