The Chief
June 17, 2005

Unions Hopeful On 9/11 Disability Bill

By Ginger Adams Otis

As the clock wound down June 13 on the latest version of a disability bill for public employees who worked at Ground Zero, union leaders and members of the Legislature expressed cautious optimism that Governor Pataki would finally back the much-anticipated legislation.

“Until the Governor signs it, I can’t say it’s a done deal,” said Peter Meringolo, Correction Captains’ Association president and chair of the Public Employees Conference that’s been negotiating with Albany for disability coverage. “But the dialogue has been great and things are looking good. The Governor’s counsel, the Assembly counsel, the Senate counsel, and PEC’s counsel and members have worked hard to make this happen. I’ve got a nice feeling – I’m optimistic.”

Supporters Confident

Governor Pataki was expected to sign into law June 14 a slightly modified version of the 9/11 bill that was passed 10 days prior by the Legislature. As early as June 10, the Senate sponsor of the bill, Martin Golden of Brooklyn, was telling reporters that the measure would be enacted.

Peter J. Abbate Jr., the sponsoring Assemblyman, was slightly more circumspect, but said in a phone interview June 10 that he expected the bill to be signed by Governor Pataki.

“It’s long overdue,” he said. “The Governor, the Mayor, all sorts of elected officials have been down to Ground Zero making speeches and saying “We’ll never forget, we’ll never forget.” Now we can show the public employees that we mean what we say.”

The legislation would provide disability coverage for public employees who contract an illness or physical ailment later in life that can be linked to work they did at Ground Zero, the City Morgue or Fresh Kills landfill. Structural injuries – like backaches and stress fractures that are hard to quantify – aren’t included, but heart disease, cancer and many respiratory illnesses are.

Last-minute chapter amendments proposed by the Pataki administration included a provision that workers be able to prove they worked at least 40 hours at Ground Zero and other sites, which Mr. Meringolo said wasn’t a big issue.

“The amendment wouldn’t have been introduced if it wasn’t agreed upon by four parties, myself included,” he said. “The Governor’s people wanted it and their point was valid. Of course I had to check with my members and make sure it worked for them, but the communication between us all was good.”

A caveat to that amendment was brought forward by Assemblyman Abbate, however, He was concerned that first responders who were injured during the collapse of the Twin Towers would be ineligible for disability under the 40-hour rule. He asked that an exception be made for workers who might be plagued by future flare-ups of documented 9/11 injuries who were only at the site for a short time. That request was still being considered by the Pataki administration late last week.

Eye on Mayor

The amendments were scheduled to be introduced to the Legislature June 14 and, if approved, conceivably signed into law by Mr. Pataki as part of a new bill that day. Mr. Meringolo said, his primary fear was that continued opposition from Mayor Bloomberg, who has tenaciously fought the 9/11 measure, would sink the deal.

“I always worry about the Mayor’s intervention. I think it’s wrong – I believe in my heart that he should have been on board with this from Day One,” he said. “I like the Mayor, but what I don’t get is that these [public employees] are the people who endorsed him, these are the people whose funerals he attends, these are the people who responded so valiantly in a crisis. And I’ve never heard him in three years be on our side and I don’t hear him now.”

His concerns were echoed by Mr. Abbate, who said the Mayor’s attempts to sideline the bill were unjust.

“I still don’t understand his opposition. In the loads of presumption bills I’ve done in Albany, this has been the cheapest I’ve ever seen,” said the Assemblyman.

Calls to the Mayor’s Office were not returned.