The Chief
October 19, 2007

Urge Eased Criteria for WTC Pensions

End 40-Hour Standard

By REUVEN BLAU

The task force established to oversee the implementation of the World Trade Center Disability Law has recommended that Governor Spitzer amend the legislation to reduce the 40-hour exposure requirement and pre-employment physical condition for eligibility.

THOMAS EPPINGER: Rule needs adjustment.
THOMAS EPPINGER: Rule needs adjustment.

The proposed changes, which also include expanding geographic boundaries and creating universal criteria for reviewing applications, would potentially allow hundreds of civilian workers to file for the presumptive disability.

'Rectify Injustices'

"During the first year of operation, the Task Force has found that there are severe health impacts suffered by responders, that the pension and disability systems are not configured properly to deal fairly with these after-effects and that there is a need for legislative amendments to rectify these injustices," the 11-page report to Governor Spitzer states.

The 19-member Task Force called the health consequences of the World Trade Center attack "grievous," noting that people who responded on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 suffered "stress and the highest exposure to dangerous conditions."

PATRICK J. LYNCH: Backing amendments.
PATRICK J. LYNCH: Backing amendments.

Citing the report and the latest medical studies, union leaders for the city's firefighters, Emergency Medical Service personnel and police officers are planning a collective effort in Albany to get the law that was signed by then-Governor George Pataki updated.

"We had people that were not immediately injured and weren't down there for 40 hours," said Thomas Eppinger, president of District Council 37 Local 3621, which represents Emergency Medical Service officers.

PBA: 'They Deserve Help'

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said that he also supports broadening the "arbitrary" 40-hour prerequisite.

"There is evidence that workers present during the first 48 hours after the collapse are more likely to develop illnesses," he said in a statement. "They deserve and have earned the protection that the 9/11 disability law provides, and the PBA will seek legislation to provide it to them."

GOVERNOR SPITZER: A sympathetic ear.
GOVERNOR SPITZER: A sympathetic ear.

Under the current law, claimants must have "participated in World Trade Center rescue, recovery or cleanup operations for a minimum of 40 hours." The only exception is for people who were actually physically injured on Sept. 11 or 12, 2001.

The task force report argued that the 40-hour requirement had "prejudiced" municipal employees who participated in the recovery and cleanup operations but had to leave or were sent home by their supervisors before they worked the required time to qualify for the disability benefit.

Cites Trauma Victims

Those employees often left precisely because they were already suffering adverse health effects from working at the site, the report said. "This group of workers includes those who suffered mental trauma as a result of witnessing events at the World Trade Center site during and immediately after the attacks, but for less than 40 hours," the document added.

It is unclear whether Governor Spitzer plans to support the recommendations, which will likely be introduced in legislative form in January.

PETER MERINGOLO: Time to make changes.
PETER MERINGOLO: Time to make changes.

Mayor Bloomberg, who strongly opposed the 9/11 disability measure, has repeatedly said that he believes the Federal Government should pay the costs related to first responders and others who have fallen ill as a result of the terrorist attack. ("We decline to comment on this story," said mayoral spokesman Jason Post.)

"I haven't had any indication that they are opposing it," one union official said, referring to the Bloomberg administration. "The city's side is always the budget, the budget, the budget."

No Uniformity

At a Sept. 24 City Council hearing, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs and World Trade Center Health Coordinator Jeffrey Hon testified that while Mayor Bloomberg was working to expand and invest in treatment services, the city needed more Federal funding.

Ms. Gibbs also said that there was no uniform standard among agencies in how they communicated with employees about Workers' Compensation and medical coverage.

According to the task force report, the city's five pension systems have also been using different criteria to review applications for the disability benefit. "At the same time, the retirement systems have not made their criteria public," the document said. "This makes it impossible to determine whether the retirement systems have used appropriate criteria to deny World Trade Center disability applications, or even whether a retirement system has followed its own criteria for denials."

Want Criteria Disclosed

To rectify that problem, the task force recommended that the retirement systems publicly disclose their requirements. The report also suggested that each system include physicians on its medical panel who are board-certified in Occupational Medicine.

Peter D. Meringolo, who as chair of the Public Employee Conference spearheaded the negotiating for city and state unions on the legislation, acknowledged that the Task Force was reviewing various aspects of the measure.

"There are a lot of things that we did in that bill that we have to go back and look at," he remarked. "We are looking at the 40-hour rule. It was important at that time to get our foot in the door."

Art Wilcox, the State AFL-CIO Public Employee Division Director, said that there were a "host of things" that the unions were looking to amend. "Everybody's trying to go through the task force to avoid future vetoes," he added.

Gaining the task force's backing, he observed, would give added credence to any new 9/11 disability bills pertaining to retirement law. "We will be talking with our affiliates to see what needs fixing," he remarked.

Civilians Shut Out

The present law effectively denies practically all civilian employees, because most of those workers did not have a pre-employment physical examination, which is required for many first responders, the task force report said.

The group also recommended expanding the geographic boundaries for eligibility. Under the law, employees are eligible only if they worked either at the "World Trade Center site," defined as "anywhere below a line starting from the Hudson River and Canal Street; east on Canal Street to Pike Street; south on Pike Street to the East River; and extending to the lower tip of Manhattan," or at the Fresh Kills landfill or the barges traveling to and from the Fresh Kills landfill, or at the City Morgue or the temporary morgue.

"However, many employees have stated that they suffered significant exposure while participating in World Trade Center rescue, recovery or cleanup operation at other sites," the report said. Victims from 9/11 were cared for at hospitals outside the boundaries and contaminated vehicles were cleaned and repaired at other locations.

Some civilian unions have already worked to persuade the Legislature to include their members in new pieces of legislation. On June 3, Governor Spitzer signed a bill incorporating the city's auto mechanics in World Trade Center disability and pension laws.

Cleaned WTC Vehicles

The legislation allows the city's 1,000 mechanics who cleaned Fire Department, Police Department and Sanitation Department vehicles post-9/11 to apply for disability pensions if they develop a WTC-related illness.

Mechanics and other civilian titles were left out of the original law due to its geographic limitation language.

Joseph Colangelo, president of Service Employees' International Union Local 246, which represents the mechanics, said many of his members were at those sites and met the eligibility requirements to file a claim.

But other mechanics who tended to city rigs at the West 34th St. and 58th St. garages didn't initially qualify, Mr. Colangelo noted, because those locations weren't included as part of the "zone" established by the disability bill.

City's Opposition

The Mayor's Office opposed the bill primarily because of the cost, submitting a fiscal note estimating it at $500,000 annually.

But the Bloomberg administration also questioned the need for such a measure, asserting that its supporters had failed to demonstrate that mechanics who repaired, cleaned or rehabilitated city vehicles were exposed to the same health risks as other public employees.

In what may be a harbinger for similar legislation soon to be introduced, Governor Spitzer rejected that argument. "Auto Mechanics made a significant contribution to the rescue and clean-up operation following the attack on the WTC," the bill's approval memo stated. "If these auto workers are ill ... they deserve the same benefits afforded to other NYC employees."

The Governor noted that opponents of the bill argued that it was too broadly drafted, and should be limited to a specific class of individuals.

The approval memo, however, pointed out that the bill's sponsors intended the measure to cover only city-employed auto mechanics. The legislation, which was vetoed by former-Governor Pataki, grants Local 246 Auto Mechanics eligibility for presumptive pensions.

Uncommon Cancers

The task force, which is chaired by Dr. Thomas Knight Aldrich from Montefiore Medical Center, also detailed some of the health ailments individuals have been experiencing as a result of their time near exposed areas.

The problems include rare cancers, such as mesothelioma and pancreatic cancer. "Recent reports show that Mt. Sinai hospital staff are seeing unusual clusters of blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma in police staff, construction workers and volunteers at Ground Zero," the report stated.

Medical experts have also testified that the WTC cough is a real illness. "The Fire Department of NY conducted over 10,000 exams of firefighters," the report noted. "Through comparisons of five-year chest x-rays and breathing tests for firefighters, the department has found that 20-25 percent of the responders have cough and wheeze issues."

Other Lung Ailments

Doctors are also finding other asthma, sinus problems and pulmonary fibrosis "for which there is no cure, only the hope of a lung transplant," the document added. "One firefighter and two police officers have died of pulmonary fibrosis, and three firefighters have some stage of it."

There are also findings that firefighters are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to the report. "The responders are seeing 3,000 cases a year in the mental health programs, where before 9/11 they saw less than 500 per year," the report said. "Many firefighters are concerned about their future health, which is historically uncommon for them."