May 23, 2014

Editorial: Restore ‘Tier 2 Disability’


Five years ago, then-Gov. David Paterson issued a stunning veto of a bill extending Tier 2 pension status to new Police Officers and Firefighters that had routinely been renewed virtually from the time that other new public employees came under Tier 3 in mid-1976.

It came as something of a shock that the police and fire unions did not prevail upon state legislators to override the veto. Mr. Paterson, who had stepped into the job when Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign the previous year over a hooker scandal, was already considered an underdog to be elected to a full term the following year against the then-State Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo.

But the veto stuck, leaving new hires in the NYPD and FDNY facing two significant disadvantages compared to those who were already serving. Tier 3 required them to work for 22 years before qualifying for a full, half-pay pension at retirement, compared to the 20 years that had long been the standard for those jobs. And, as some union officials put it, it offered “no disability benefit.” This was an exaggeration: those who suffer on-the-job injuries that leave them unable to return to work receive a half-pay pension based on final salary. But it is taxable, in contrast to the Tier 2 benefit that amounts to 75 percent of final salary and is tax-free.

There hadn’t been overwhelming urgency to address this reduction in benefits, partly because at the time the Fire Department wasn’t even hiring as the result of a Federal Judge’s order that was in effect while a hiring-discrimination lawsuit was adjudicated. And in the current political climate, getting a 20-year retirement restored will be a difficult task—the growing police- and fire-related pension costs the city and other localities throughout the state are facing are due to the longer life-span of people in those jobs in recent years. There was also a political component to this portion of the Tier 3 law: since it wouldn’t become a pressing problem until those hired under it began approaching the 20-year mark of their careers, there was less urgency to deal with it now.

But the sharply reduced disability benefit has suddenly become a major issue for both lawmakers and the unions in the wake of the otherwise-happy news that Police Officer Rosa Rodriguez was discharged from New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center May 19. She is the other cop who was felled by smoke inhalation while responding to a fire inside a Coney Island housing project on April 6; her partner, Police Officer Dennis Guerra, died three days after from the toxic poisoning of his lungs.

Officer Rodriguez, according to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, had told her bosses a few days before she left the hospital that she was anxious to return to work. But the associate director of the hospital’s burn center was less optimistic about that prospect. He said that a full recovery might take a year, and that the psychological trauma she suffered, both from her own injuries and her partner’s death, might ultimately force her to leave the job and accept a disability pension.

Under Tier 3, that would mean a payment of just two-thirds of what she would have received under Tier 2, and subject to taxation. Public Advocate Letitia James has asked Governor Cuomo to take a look at the situation; Mr. Paterson, whom he last week appointed to chair the State Democratic Party, issued a mea culpa of sorts during a radio interview in which he suggested a special bill be passed to give her essentially what she would have received in disability pay had he not exercised his veto.

The PBA, however, has objected to what is referred to in Albany as a “one-person bill,” and with good reason. The publicity generated by the officers’ heroism in trying to help in evacuating residents rather than waiting for firefighters to arrive, and the tragic consequences, have generated widespread publicity and an outpouring of public sympathy. The union’s concern is that there will inevitably be cases in which officers suffer disabling injuries that attract less attention and won’t produce the same public pressure to assist them.

The fact that Officer Rodriguez is the first cop or firefighter hired in nearly five years to be facing the dilemma caused by the switch into Tier 3 makes clear that the cost of restoring the old three-quarters-pay tax-free disability pension should not be a budget-buster. If it takes uncoupling this provision from their hope of restoring the 20-year retirement to get the change made quickly in Albany, that is what the unions should do, and state legislators and the Governor should move on it.

Uniformed workers often put themselves in harm’s way in situations where it wouldn’t necessarily be expected, either because they are off duty at the time or it involves work that falls outside their basic duties. It is appropriate that those who are disabled in the line of duty receive a special benefit.

Whatever logic exists for requiring more-recent hires to work a bit longer to qualify for a full pension, there is none at all to denying the old Tier 2 disability benefit to those who earned it just because they weren’t hired soon enough to qualify. The relatively small added cost of restoring it is something we as a society should be willing to bear.