LAWRENCE — Mayor Daniel Rivera was on a middle-of-the-night inspection of the city's plowing and towing operations during a recent storm when he walked into the dispatch center for Valley Towing, a contractor for the city.
Sitting behind the dispatcher's desk was Karen Toto, a long-time city parking enforcement officer who has been collecting workers' compensation payments since Oct. 4, 2013, when a doctor said an on-the-job injury left her unable to work. She receives a check for $966 every two weeks from the city, which self-insures for workers' comp.
Rivera said he believes Toto was dispatching for the towing company and has begun the process of firing her, which he said is part of a wider crackdown on potential workers' comp abuse by employees that he began shortly after taking office two years ago.
Toto is vacationing in Florida and could not be reached for comment Friday. A spokesman for her union said she was only visiting her boyfriend, Ronald Parrino, who owns the towing company on Merrimack Street in Methuen, and not dispatching trucks when the mayor arrived unannounced at 3 a.m.
“Three in the morning is a little strange, I'll say that, but it was nothing illegal,” said Ike Gabriel, business manager for Local 3 of the Service Employees Industrial Union. “She's there often. She lives around the corner.”
Parrino did not respond to a message left at Valley Towing. Joe Rubino, who runs Valley's repair shop, said Toto has never worked for the company.
Toto also spends time at the Sargent Improvement Club, a social club directly across the street from Valley Towing, where Helen Phillips, a member of the club's board of directors, said she volunteers as a cook on weekends.
Toto has been a parking enforcement officer for Lawrence since Oct. 23, 2000. She earned $36,919 last year, payroll records show.
She has been declared unfit to work after sustaining injuries on the job and collected workers' comp at least twice before, according to the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.
Toto collected $15,576 in workers' comp from the city after an injury that occurred in January 2001, although the dates she was out were not immediately available, said Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the agency. The city disputed the claim but the state Department of Industrial Accidents, an arm of the Office of Labor and Workforce Development that hears disputed worker's comp cases, found in Toto's favor.
Toto filed her first workers' comp claim while employed by AT&T in 1988. The company did not dispute the claim so details about how long she was out and how much compensation she received were not available from the DIA.
Federal privacy laws prohibit the city and state from disclosing the nature of Toto's injuries.
Lawrence Personnel Director Frank Bonet last week was scheduled to hear Toto's appeal of Rivera's decision to fire her, but the hearing was delayed when Gabriel, the union official, asked for more time to speak to witnesses and collect evidence. Bonet would make a recommendation to Rivera – who already has sent Toto a notice of his intent to fire her - about whether to discipline Toto.
Toto would have the right to a further appeal to an arbitrator.
The Eagle-Tribune last week filed a request under the state's Public Records Law for a copy of the "Intent to Terminate" document that Rivera filed against Toto, which details his claim. The city has not responded.
Rivera said his purpose in making the early-morning rounds of the city's plowing and towing operations was to ensure the streets were getting plowed and illegally parked cars were getting towed, not to snare city employees who may be working outside jobs while collecting workers' comp. But, he said his decision to fire Toto fits into the crackdown on employees he said may be shaking down the workers' compensation system.
“I was checking out the operations,” he said. “How many cars are being towed? Were our guys positioned where they're supposed to be?”
After seeing Toto behind the dispatch desk at Valley Towing, Rivera said he kept the visit brief.
“I just said, 'Hi. How are you doing?' ” he said about his conversation with Toto.
Gabriel said Toto was only visiting her boyfriend during a hectic night for him, not scamming the city.
“According to the people I spoke to, she wasn't doing anything more than sitting behind the desk,” Gabriel said. “The mayor just went in, saw her behind the desk and left after two or three minutes.”
“This is another case of shooting first and asking questions later,” Gabriel added, “instead of getting the facts straight.”