Chief-Leader
May 23, 2014


Cop Injured in Fire Leaves Hospital But Could Receive Lesser Pension

First to Face Reduced Disability Benefit

By Mark Toor

   
The Chief-Leader/Michel Friang  

THE LITTLEST COPS: As Police Officer Rosa Rodriguez is released May 19 from New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell, the cheering escort included her two daughters, to her right wearing police hats. Amy Tavarez, 11, and her sister, Abby, 9, also brought flowers. Officer Rodriguez, a mother of four, had been hospitalized since she and her partner, Police Officer Dennis Guerra, responded to a fire on the 13th floor of a Coney Island housing project April 6 and were overcome by poisonous smoke. Officer Guerra died from his exposure. It is not clear when or whether Officer Rodriguez will return to work.

 

Still attached to oxygen equipment, Police Officer Rosa Rodriguez was released from the hospital May 19 after six weeks of recovering from smoke poisoning contracted at a Coney Island housing-project fire that killed her partner, Police Officer Dennis Guerra.

A Cloudy Future

Officer Rodriguez’s future as a cop is in doubt, however. Although she has expressed a desire to go back to patrol, doctors said it’s not clear that she’ll be able to do so. And if she is forced to retire on disability, she will be the first officer to fall under a new, less-generous provision for disability pensions that covers officers hired from July 2009 forward.

“The disability benefits under the Tier 3 pension plan are grossly inadequate,” Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “It is immoral to expect someone to risk their life for the good of the city and not be prepared to care for them and their family should some catastrophic harm befall them in the line of duty. We must have legislation to correct this gross inequity that occurred under the cover of night when former Governor Paterson failed to renew the Tier 2 pension for our members without considering the serious harm to first-responders.”

   

PATRICK J. LYNCH: Need bill to correct ‘immoral’ inequity.

 

Officer Rodriguez, 36, rolled out of New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan in a wheelchair festooned with balloons. She was still hooked to an oxygen tank. Dozens of cops cheered her, and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and Mayor de Blasio were in attendance. So were her two daughters, each wearing a police hat and carrying a bouquet of flowers.

“She has a long road to go,” Mr. Bratton told a City Council hearing May 20. “However, she is in good spirits.”

‘Ready, Eager for Patrols’

Her union representative, James Borusso, said she had told her bosses just a few days earlier that she was “ready and eager to get back out on vertical patrols” in the projects.

Dr. Palmer Bessey, associate director of the hospital’s burn center, said doctors initially believed there was a 50-percent chance she would die. But she was hooked up to a respirator for a month, and her lungs began to heal.

He said a full recovery could take a year. After that, Dr. Bessey said, she will have to see whether she will be able to return to police work. She might be physically healthy but psychologically unable to come back to work, he said. Trauma such as she experienced “really changes your perspective on the world and what you can and cannot do,” he said.

   

DAVID PATERSON: Some belated misgivings about veto.

 

Public Advocate Letitia James wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo May 14 questioning the new pension rules. The Tier 2 rules that apply to officers hired before July 2009 specify a tax-free disability pension of three-quarters of final salary. Tier 3 cuts that to 50 percent of final salary, subject to taxation.

A Year Too Late

She noted that Officer Rodriguez, who has 3½ years on the job and makes $53,270 a year, was hired in July 2010. That was one year after then-Governor David Paterson vetoed a bill, extended routinely since 1976, that had allowed generations of police officers and firefighters facing disability retirement to be covered under Tier 2.

“If she had joined the department one year earlier, she would have been eligible to earn $39,952 a year in tax-free disability pay plus Social Security disability funds,” Ms. James wrote.

“Because of the 2009 changes, Ms. Rodriguez will only be eligible to receive about $26,600 a year,” she continued. “And because the 2009 changes reduce pension payments 50 cents for every dollar Ms. Rodriguez receives from Social Security, she will be limited to make about $37,400 including Social Security benefits.”

Back to the Future

“Our goal should be to restore state law so police and firefighter pensions go back to 2009 levels,” she wrote. “...More immediately, in light of her sacrifice, a special act should be passed to give Officer Rodriguez the level of benefits that she would have been entitled to if she had been hired prior to July 2009.”

Even Mr. Paterson wrote a letter urging a larger pension for Officer Rodriguez. He said the State Legislature should pass a bill that would improve her pension.

He said he had vetoed the Tier 2 extension for new police and firefighters because of the financial pressure on the state during a recession—although PBA spokesman Al O’Leary said the money for disability pensions comes from the Police Pension Fund, not state coffers.

The former Governor also said he didn’t think the PBA was negotiating fairly.

“Should be a one-time-only situation, but with the awareness that this can happen again and that the benefits are so much less than they were before,” he told CBS Radio. “I would suggest that the union come back to the table and find a better way to end the negotiation. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault, but experience teaches us, and I hope it does in this case.”

Want Change for All

Mr. O’Leary said the law needs to be changed for all police officers under Tier 3, not just for Officer Rodriguez. “We’ve been working toward that end,” he said.

She and Officer Guerra were responding to a fire in the 13th-floor hallway of a Coney Island housing project April 6. The first first-responders on the scene, they took the elevator to the floor where the fire had intensified and were quickly overwhelmed by toxic smoke.

Officer Guerra died April 9. A 16-year-old resident of the building was charged with arson and murder.