The Chief
June 24, 2005

Pataki Approves WTC Disability For Responders

Bolsters Pensions For Ailments Caused By Rescue, Clean-Up

By Ginger Adams Otis

Governor Pataki June 15 signed into law a bill that permits city and state workers involved in the world Trade Center rescue, recovery or clean-up operations to qualify for disability pensions.

Surrounded by union officials and public employees in front of the Sphere sculpture that was pulled from the wreckage of Ground Zero and installed near the entrance to Battery Park, the Governor said the legislation did the right thing by those who worked to get New York back to normal following the Sept. 11 attacks.

‘They Answered the Call’

“This new law recognizes their tremendous efforts during that time of crisis, and will ensure that they receive appropriate compensation for any disabilities they may have suffered as a result of their involvement,” he said, “New Yorkers will never forget the tragic events of that day, nor will we forget those who answered the call to duty without hesitation.”

The legislation, which had failed to move twice before because of Mayor Bloomberg’s objection to its potential cost, stipulates that public employees who incur certain physical injuries or diseases as a result of their work at Ground Zero, the Fresh Kills landfill or the City Morgue are eligible for a tax-free disability pension equal to 75 percent of their salary.

Ailments covered by the law include cancer, respiratory illness and certain skin conditions.

Peter D. Meringolo, who as chair of the Public Employee Conference lobbied on behalf of more than 50 public-sector unions, had spent the previous day shepherding the latest version of the bill – and a few chapter amendments – through the State Legislature and onto the Governor’s desk.

‘A Monumental Day’

“I was there in Albany when Mr. Pataki signed the bill around 10:30 last night, and I got up at 4:30 a.m. to drive down here to witness the public signing ceremony. It’s not a happy day, because you can never think of 9/11 without tremendous sorrow in your heart,” said Mr. Meringolo. “But this is a monumental day. It’s been a long road, but it shows how everyone working together can bring something to fruition which will benefit those who sacrificed so much.”

The week preceding Governor Pataki’s decision to sign the bill was filled with last minute tweaking that had Mr. Meringolo, along with co-sponsors Senator Martin Golden and Assemblyman Peter J. Abbate, Jr., on tenterhooks until all parties signed off on the amendments.

The final version of the bill creates a September 11 Workers Protection Task Force that’s charged with obtaining statistical and qualitative data from the state and city Departments of the Health and other sources on the prevalence of sickness and disabilities among WTC workers. It will also assess the nature, scope and magnitude of health problems caused by exposure to air and other elements, examine existing laws related to disability coverage for workers, and identify Federal sources of funding to provide the benefits conferred by the bill. The 10-member panel will be comprised of city and state officials.

Eligibility Standards

The law also mandates that workers must have logged 40 hours at any of the approved sites to be eligible, although a caveat was added to excuse workers who were injured during the first response to the World Trade Center and couldn’t accrue 40 hours, but would deserve a disability pension if a related health problem occurred later in life.

Absent from the proceedings was Mayor Bloomberg. Union leaders and some members of the Legislature have openly questioned his financial concerns, saying that projections by Chief City Actuary Robert C. North were greatly exaggerated.

Supporters of the 9/11 disability measure expressed disappointment and frustration at the Mayor’s attempts to block its passage over the past three years. Union leaders are particularly bitter about the Mayors’ role in fast-tracking Federal money into an insurance fund that protects employees in four major construction companies while doing little for public workers.

‘Try Talking, Mayor’

Peter L. Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers’ Association, said he couldn’t understand the Mayor’s attitude.

“This wasn’t arrived at overnight, and it involved a lot of talking and negotiating between labor and the Governor,” he said. “But that’s what crafting legislation is about. Mr. Mayor, enter the process.”

Among those present to witness the bill-signing were Senator Golden and Assemblyman Abbate, Uniformed Firefighters’ Association President Stephen J. Cassidy, and Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch, who said his group has always been supportive of the legislation even though it withdrew from the Public Employee conference two years ago.