November 11, 2014

Cop Hurt by Hatchet Vividly Illustrates Flaw in Disability Law, PBA Claims

Pushing for Restoration of Tier 2’s 75% Benefit


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UNCERTAIN FUTURE, INADEQUATE PENSION: Police Officer Kenneth Healey left Jamaica Hospital last week to the applause of his fellow cops, bound for a rehabilitation center as he recovers from the severe head injury he suffered when struck by a hatchet wielded by a Muslim radical late last month. If he is unable to return to work, as a rookie cop he would be entitled to a pension of just $23,000, which would be taxable and would be further reduced by whatever Social Security benefits he receives. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association argues that his case is a particularly vivid example of the injustice created five years ago when then-Gov. David Paterson vetoed a long-time Tier 2 extender bill that provided officers disabled in the line of duty with a pension benefit equaling 75 percent of final average salary and exempt from state and local taxes and the Social Security offset. If that coverage were still in effect, Officer Healey would be eligible for a tax-free disability pension of nearly $35,000 a year.

Police Officer Kenneth Healey is another potential member of the David Paterson Disability Poverty Club.

Officer Healey, 25, was hit in the head with an 18-inch hatchet by a Muslim radical Oct. 23 as he stood with three other cops on a sidewalk in Jamaica, Queens. The attacker, Zale Thompson, 32, ran at the officers from two blocks away.

PATRICK J. LYNCH:  Cop facing ‘worst-case scenario.  

‘Hat Saved His Life’

“His head was split open from here to here,” a witness told the New York Times, tracing a finger from his forehead to the back of his head. “His hat probably saved his life.” Mr. Thompson slashed another officer’s arm before the two officers still standing shot him to death.

Officer Healey was released five days later from Jamaica Hospital and transferred to a rehab center. His long-term prognosis is uncertain.

He graduated from the Police Academy in July and earns $42,000 a year. If he is forced to retire on a disability pension, he will get $27 a day from the city, the website DNAinfo reported last week.

With Social Security disability money added in, his annual benefit will be about $32,000, all of it taxable. If he had been hired before 2009, his total benefit would have been $54,000, much of it tax-free.

Vetoed Tier 2 Extender

The difference is that in 2009 then-Governor David Paterson vetoed an extender bill, approved routinely since 1976, that had allowed generations of police officers and firefighters hired under what became Tier 4 to be covered under Tier 2. This placed them under Tier 3, which most employees were moved out of in the early 1980s when Tier 4 was created. That featured no reduction in benefits due to their Social Security allowances.

The Tier 3 disability provision offers no special consideration for line-of-duty injuries. Where Tier 2 grants a tax-free pension equal to 75 percent of final year’s salary, the Tier 3 version gives recipients 50 percent of final average salary but is subject to state and city taxes and a Social Security offset, reducing the value of the allowance to somewhere between 33 and 44 percent of their final three-year salary average.

The police and fire unions have been working vigorously to restore the pre-2009 benefits.

‘Can’t Live on That’

“A New York City police officer hired since 2009 will not be able to live on the significantly reduced disability pay should he or she be permanently disabled in the line of duty,” Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said last week.

“The worst-case scenario is an officer injured during the first year on the job who would only receive a pension benefit from the city of $21,000 taxable dollars a year for the rest of his or her life. That $21,000 [not factoring in night differential] would be reduced by 50 percent of any Social Security benefit the officer would get. 

“This grossly inadequate disability benefit was an inadvertent byproduct of Governor Paterson’s decision not to renew the Tier 2 pension as his predecessors had done since the 1970s. The former Governor has since stated publicly that this dramatic reduction in disability support must be corrected.”

Mr. Lynch continued, “It is immoral to ask police officers to risk their lives to protect the city and then fail to provide adequate support if they are permanently injured while doing so. The Mayor and the City Council must help us correct this economic injustice by granting us a home-rule message supporting our legislation to restore pre-2009 disability benefits for police officers hired since then.”

No Home-Rule Message

Bills to fix the pension inequity were introduced in the State Legislature last session by State Sen. Martin J. Golden, a former cop, and Assemblyman Peter J. Abbate Jr., but without the home-rule message they went nowhere.

The City Council opted in June not to consider a home-rule resolution. The business-funded Citizens Budget Commission wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio that urged him to oppose a change in the disability-pension provisions.

“With more than one-third of all police retirees, approximately 15,000 people, collecting disability pensions, the proposed changes would increase the city’s costs by $35 million in fiscal year 2015,” wrote CBC president Carol Kellerman.

Mr. de Blasio put out the word later that month that he did not favor improving disability pensions. He cited that $35-million estimate by then-Chief Actuary Robert North. The PBA says that estimate is too high and assumes more disability pensions would be granted than warranted by historical figures.

Mr. Lynch met in September with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito seeking her support for the pension bill. She declined to commit, according to the website Capital New York.

Social Contract

“Society has always had a contract with first-responders—in exchange for going in harm’s way, society will provide for our family if we are killed or permanently disabled,” said Roy Richter, president of the Captains’ Endowment Association.

Officer Healey is not the only cop facing disability retirement on a poverty pension. Officer Rosa Rodriguez, who joined the NYPD in 2010, is recovering from smoke poisoning after responding to a housing-project fire April 6 in Coney Island.

Severe smoke inhalation from the fire killed her partner, Officer Dennis Guerra. When she was released from the hospital six weeks after the fire, doctors said that full recovery might take a year, and that she might never be able to go back to work, for either physical or psychological reasons. Asked for an update last week, the NYPD said only that she remains on sick leave.

Officer Rodriguez was the first cop hired since Mr. Paterson vetoed the Tier 2 pension-extension bill who was injured seriously enough to be considered for disability retirement.

Cites Financial Woes

Mr. Paterson, speaking after Officer Rodriguez’s pension woes were reported, 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 the PBA pointed out that the money for disability pensions comes from the Police Pension Fund, not state coffers.

Mr. Paterson said he would support a bill restoring Tier 2 pension benefits for Officer Rodriguez, but not across the board. The police unions say the pension inequity needs to be resolved for everyone.