Chief-Leader
Updated: 5:13 pm, May 18, 2015


De Blasio’s Police/Fire Disability Fix Blasted By Unions: ‘2nd Class’

Ends Social Security Offset But Doesn’t Restore 75% Tax-Free Pay

By SARAH DORSEY

After months of protesting the lower line-of-duty disability benefits of his newer members, the head of the Firefighters’ union last week said he was blindsided by an offer from Mayor de Blasio that he and Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch called “unacceptable,” saying it offered just a slightly better “second-class-citizen status” than now exists.

Not Full Tier 2 Rights

The proposal—many of the details of which were not made available—would increase the line-of-duty benefits for cops and firefighters hired after 2009, but still leave them significantly below those of more-senior employees. It would eliminate a Social Security benefit offset, grant the higher cost-of-living increases available to more-senior members, and use a higher salary to calculate the disability benefits of the most-recently hired.

Paterson Ended Extender

Before 2010, those forced to retire from an on-the-job injury received 75 percent of their final average salary tax-free.

But the previous June, then-Gov. David Paterson vetoed a routinely-passed bill that extended full Tier 2 benefits to newer hires, including more-generous benefits for non-disability retirements. Those who joined the NYPD or FDNY from 2010 forward are eligible for just 50 percent of final salary for line-of-duty disabilities.

That amount is reduced by half of any Social Security disability benefits collected, and is subject to state and local taxes.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association and the PBA have intensified a push they began last year to restore the Tier 2 disability provision. UFA President Steve Cassidy—along with hundreds of firefighters who rallied on the steps of City Hall in March—noted that the current system grants a rookie firefighter just $27 a day.

The Mayor touted his proposal as a significant boon to new uniformed workers.

‘Ensures They’re Protected’

“When it comes to our uniformed workers, safety is paramount,” Mr. de Blasio wrote in a statement. “These brave public servants put their lives on the line each day to protect this city—and today we are letting them know: we are there for you, too. This bill will ensure every uniformed worker—especially those just starting out on the job—is protected by this city after a tragic injury.”

But one pension expert not involved in the battle was unimpressed, saying, “It makes a horrible benefit a little less horrible.”

In a phone interview last week, Mr. Cassidy said that he’d received a call from First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris on May 13 describing the plan less than an hour before the press release was given to a reporter. A day later, he still hadn’t received any details in writing and didn’t know anything more than what was in the 1½-page release issued to the public.

He wasn’t even sure if under the Mayor’s plan, the benefits would be taxable. The press release described them as tax-free, but also called the current Tier 3 benefits tax-free. They are exempt from only Federal taxes.

“The Mayor and his team certainly never consulted with me at any time to discuss their plan with us,” Mr. Cassidy said, adding that a modest boost in benefits “still doesn’t really change the fact that new Firefighters hired after 2009 are still being treated like second-class citizens.”

‘A Public-Relations’ Ploy

He added, “To me, they put out something that they think solves the public-relations problems that they have” because $27 a day is so low for risky public-safety jobs.

Under the Mayor’s plan, to determine benefits, the city would use whatever was higher: the final average salary or the “basic maximum salary.” Line-of-duty disability benefits for first-year workers would actually exceed their current salary under this system.

Mr. Cassidy explained that the city would use the salary of a Firefighter First Grade to calculate the benefits of a first-year Firefighter, whose base earnings are just over $39,000. A Firefighter First Grade makes a base salary of $76,488.

The union leader scoffed at the idea that the Mayor should “want to take some massive credit for” removing the Social Security offset.

“It’s offensive. We pay into Social Security like everyone else who has a job,” he said. Later, he added, “They removed something that’s patently offensive and in my view, anti-American.”

Mayor: 65% Better

But Mr. de Blasio emphasized the size of the increases under his plan, writing that a Firefighter with two years’ experience would see his benefits rise by 65 percent compared to the current law. A police officer’s benefits would rise by the same amount if she had five years on the job.

Spokespeople for the Mayor did not respond to queries, including why the current payments were described as tax-free and why the percentage boost in benefits would be triggered at different points in service for each uniformed force.

The Mayor cited city actuarial projections in estimating that his proposal would cost $47 million through Fiscal Year 2019.

Last year he opposed providing the older Tier 2 benefits to newer cops and firefighters, saying the city couldn’t afford it. He cited then-City Actuary Robert C. North Jr.’s estimate that the fix would have cost $35 million in Fiscal Year 2015 alone.

Skewed by 9/11’s Impact

Mr. North noted in an interview with this newspaper last October that this figure was based on a “worst-case scenario.” It was derived from projecting disability costs from the previous decade—which were heavily skewed by the after-effects of 9/11 on exposed cops and firefighters—into the future.

Mr. Cassidy slammed the City Council leadership for not scheduling hearings or a vote on a home-rule message to allow lawmakers in Albany to vote on restoring full benefits. A supermajority of Council Members support a home-rule bill, but Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has not permitted a hearing to be held.

“The Council hasn’t given us an answer as to why they haven’t held hearings,” Mr. Cassidy said, arguing that in such a forum, the issue of how much fully restoring benefits would actually cost would be brought to light and vigorously debated.

“This is supposed to be the new progressive Council and administration,” he said.

Mr. Cassidy predicted that under the proposal, cops and firefighters wouldn’t earn enough on their disability benefits and would instead take light-duty jobs in their departments that could otherwise be performed by civilians with cheaper salaries and pension benefits.

‘Won’t Save City Money’

“I maintain that this is not going to save the city any money at all,” he said.

Many UFA leaders were attending an educational delegate seminar when the proposal was released last week, and the PBA leaders were in a contract arbitration session. The two unions released a joint statement condemning the plan and the way they were informed of it.

“Based upon [a] brief, last-minute phone conversation, the plan is unacceptable and continues to create a second-class citizen status for FDNY firefighters and NYPD police officers, who risk their lives every day to keep New Yorkers safe,” they wrote.

The two unions had planned a protest march over the issue the previous week, but it was postponed due to the death of Police Officer Brian Moore, who was shot four days earlier by an ex-convict he’d stopped to question.

The UFA ran video and radio advertisements in March condemning the benefit discrepancy; the video featured several affected black, Latino and female firefighters. (Since 2010, the FDNY has become much more diverse due to hiring changes after it lost a Federal discrimination lawsuit.)

Lower disability benefits were also extended to new sanitation workers and correction officers in April 2012, though with fewer career-ending injuries emerging in those fields, their unions have been less vocal in protesting the change.