May 18, 2015 5:00 pm

Editorial: A Half-Hearted Disability Bill


We would hope that Mayor de Blasio’s proposal to partially provide Tier 2 disability benefits to cops and firefighters hired after 2009 is a negotiating stance rather than a final position. If it really is as far as he is willing to go, however, the Mayor is wasting the time of everybody concerned.

There is good reason to believe that then-Gov. David Paterson’s 2009 veto of a Tier 2 extender bill that had been routinely continued for more than three decades came at the behest of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made no secret of his desire to slash pension and pension-related benefits for cops and firefighters.

Mr. de Blasio during his first 16-plus months in office has sought to reverse several actions connected to Mr. Bloomberg that he believed were unreasonably harsh. He’s going to have a hard time justifying his position that newer cops and firefighters don’t deserve the same financial protection for themselves and their families if they suffer a job-related injury or illness serious enough to prevent them from returning to their regular duties.

The fact that the Mayor’s proposal to provide something more than the basic pension for newer cops and firefighters who become disabled was circulated among the media less than an hour after First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris finished briefing union leaders on its contents suggests it is a public-relations ploy rather than an attempt to rectify an unjust situation. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch and his Uniformed Firefighters Association counterpart, Steve Cassidy, responded by arguing that its modest improvements in the abysmal disability allowance for their newer members would still leave those employees with “second-class-citizen status.”

The press release created further ambiguity by describing the proposed benefit as tax-free, because it used that same description for the Tier 3 disability payments, which are subject to both state and local taxes.

One important matter to consider is that the unions have already conceded some ground on Tier 2 by asking only that its disability component be provided in full under the bill they are backing, rather than pursuing the more-generous benefits for service retirement for newer members that this pension tier provides in comparison to Tier 3. It is a measure of the urgency they have attached to providing a decent disability retirement that they have confined their efforts to just that portion of the benefit that was discontinued for new workers in those two jobs by Governor Paterson’s ill-considered veto.

It also helps explain why Governor Cuomo last week made clear he supports that bill, notwithstanding his earlier efforts to reduce pension benefits, most notably by strong-arming Tier 6 through the State Legislature in March 2012, which requires workers hired after that time to stay on the job longer to qualify for a pension yet receive a lesser benefit than those who joined local and state pension systems earlier.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has prevented a version of the bill backed by the unions from even having hearings conducted, never mind being voted on. With the Legislature expected to adjourn for the year on June 17, the time is growing short for the bill to get meaningful consideration and the home-rule message from the Council that would be required before Albany could act on it.

It is hard to reconcile how Ms. Mark-Viverito can on the one hand be vocal about the need to add cops yet be unwilling to give them a fair disability benefit. She and the Mayor have both cited the potential cost of granting the traditional benefit equal to three quarters of an employee’s final average salary, tax-free, but the estimate provided a year ago by then-Chief Actuary Robert North was, by his own description, a worst-case projection based on disability costs over the preceding decade. Those costs were greatly inflated by the number of cops and firefighters forced to leave their jobs because of the conditions they encountered on 9/11 and in the weeks and months most of them spent digging through the toxic site known as The Pile. Absent a similar catastrophic event, the actual disability costs of providing the full Tier 2 benefit are unlikely to be anywhere near Mr. North’s projection.

After a final term in which Mr. Bloomberg seemed intent on limiting pay and benefits to an unnecessary extreme for all city workers, Mr. de Blasio figured to bring some fresh air to the labor process. For the most part he has, cleaning up the mess his predecessor left him without unreasonably adding to the city’s costs.

But there is no justification for the Mayor’s playing hardball with newer cops and firefighters on the disability benefit. In its way, it is as much a political choice as the obverse situation in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker sharply slashed benefits and rights for most state workers but exempted cops and firefighters because he viewed them as part of his conservative constituency.

To put it in language Mr. de Blasio can understand, there is nothing progressive about denying newer cops and firefighters the same disability protection as those with more seniority.