Chief-Leader
Updated: 5:41 pm, Mon Jun 8, 2015.

 

Mayor’s New Upgrade For Police/Fire On-Job Disabilities Not Enough

UFA Leader Says It Doesn’t Address Key Flaws In Existing Benefit

By RICHARD STEIER

The de Blasio administration, trying to scale down potential costs from significantly improving line-of-duty disability pensions for newer cops and firefighters, June 4 sweetened its proposal less than two weeks before the State Legislature was due to adjourn, but one union leader said it wasn’t nearly good enough.

The police and fire unions have been pushing full equalization of disability benefits to give cops and firefighters hired after 2009 the same tax-free benefit equal to 75 percent of final average salary that would be received by earlier hires who were unable to return to work because of a disabling injury or illness incurred on the job. The de Blasio administration has claimed the cost of doing that would be prohibitive, but when the City Council finally held a hearing May 29 on a bill that had been stalled for more than a year by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, it became clear that an alternative proposal unveiled by the de Blasio administration May 13 had little support.

City Went to Plan B

In fact, the head of the State Assembly’s Committee on Government Employees, Peter J. Abbate Jr., who attended the hearing, was so unenthused that he said afterwards that he would propose a bill placing the post-2009 hires in Tier 2 of the pension system, which besides offering the 75-percent disability benefit provides several other advantages those employees don’t have under their current Tier 3 membership.

The Mayor’s Office, he said in a June 4 phone interview, responded by withdrawing its initial proposal, and that day began circulating one that in some respects was more generous. The scrapped bill would have maintained the Tier 3 disability standard of 50 percent of salary, but would have pegged it to the maximum salary rate for an employee’s title rather than basing it on an employee’s salary. For newer cops and firefighters, who start at $41,975 or less, the unions said the current benefit left some with a pension payment equal to less than $27 a day.

While pegging the payout to the maximum salary of $76,488, the city believed it had sweetened the pot enough to blunt the unions’ objections. But prior to the Council hearing, Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy and Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Patrick J. Lynch protested that the upgrade still left their newer members with “second-class-citizen-status” and called on Mayor de Blasio to fulfill “a moral obligation” to provide decently for those disabled in the line of duty.

Primary Objections

Among their objections to the city’s attempt at a compromise was that while it improved the payout for newer cops and firefighters who were on the early steps of their respective pay scales, it offered nothing beyond the Tier 3 benefit for those employees once they completed 5½ years on the job and qualified for maximum salary. It also left untouched Tier 3 language that did not include “presumptions” under Tier 2 that any injury or illness pertaining to heart or lung disease or cancer were the result of on-the-job hazards and therefore qualified them for the three-quarters of salary pension.

The new proposal, a draft of which was obtained by this newspaper, would award any disabled Tier 3 cops and firefighters pensions equal to 75 percent of final average salary if as a result of their injury or illness they had also qualified for Social Security disability benefits. One person familiar with the discussions said this proviso was aimed at avoiding cases like that of the Fire Lieutenant who retired on a disability pension of $86,000 due to bronchial ailments but has since been able to compete in marathons and triathlons.

But even with the change, Mr. Cassidy said the city’s proposal remained “unacceptable. It doesn’t solve the problem.”

‘No Presumptions, No Dice’

For one thing, he said in a phone interview, “The fact that there are no presumptions in the bill is, in and of itself, a disqualifier. The second-hand smoke is so dangerous, and so how can you not have presumptions for lungs, heart and cancer?”

He also claimed that it was unfair to require that cops and firefighters be sufficiently disabled to qualify for the related Social Security benefit in order to get the 75-percent pension. “They’re saying, ‘we want you to stay home the rest of your life,’” the UFA president said, and preclude recipients from working at other jobs that did not have the physical demands of being a cop or a firefighter. He noted that a more-senior firefighter who became disabled and received the 75-percent-of-salary pension wasn’t restricted to that degree: “If he has more than 20 years [of service], he’s allowed to do that.”

He also reiterated earlier objections he had to the city’s position, which he said was based on an unrealistic projection of the long-term costs of giving newer cops and firefighters a disability equalization by former Chief Actuary Robert C. North. Contending that Mr. North’s projections last year were based on the rate of firefighter disability pensions over the previous decade, the UFA leader said that was not a valid benchmark. He pointed to the unusually high rate of disability retirements that resulted from the long-term toll of firefighters’ exposure to toxic materials beginning with the World Trade Center attacks and continuing with the month or more that many of them spent at Ground Zero in the aftermath searching first for survivors and later for the remains of their colleagues and others who died.

In trying to estimate future disability costs, Mr. Cassidy insisted, “You can never use those numbers again unless you are anticipating another 9/11.”

Lack of a Dialogue?

He said that he doubted the Mayor was acting in good faith, explaining, “I really don’t know their objections [to the union-backed bill] because they’ve never had one single conversation with me.”

Mr. Lynch was similarly unimpressed by the reworked city proposal, saying in a statement, “Once again the Mayor conjures up yet another disability proposal out of thin air that is inadequate and shortsighted.” He called for “full restoration of the Tier 2 disability benefits.”

The administration clearly hoped to offset some of the clout the UFA and PBA have in Albany by including newer correction officers and sanitation workers under the revised disability proposal. The unions representing those employees had been able to get the three-quarters pension for disabled members years ago but were forced to have their rank and files pay an additional piece of their salaries to win that benefit at the point when new police and firefighter hires were still covered under Tier 2.

They ceased to be, beginning with those hired from 2010 forward, after then-Gov. David Paterson vetoed a Tier 2 extender bill that had been routinely approved in Albany every two years from soon after Tier 2 was discontinued for other employees in favor of Tier 3 in late July of 1976. The intent of the veto was to reduce pension costs that had grown dramatically throughout the state, particularly after the stock-market meltdown caused by the 2008 national fiscal crisis. (Mr. Paterson has recently called for the equalization of the disability benefits, calling that the aspect of Tier 2 he wished he had left intact.)

Tier 3, in addition to offering the inferior disability benefit and not providing it based on the heart, lung and cancer presumptions, also requires covered cops and firefighters to work 22 years before qualifying for a full pension, and gives them no cost-of-living adjustments unless they stay on the job for at least three years after that.

A Tier 5 Transition?

The bill that is deemed to have the best chance of being passed by the Legislature and then signed into law by Governor Cuomo—who despite his past efforts to reduce pension costs is supporting this bill—would essentially give city cops and firefighters the same coverage that their colleagues in other parts of the state receive under Tier 5, which took effect for all state workers and city Teachers beginning in 2009. That would provide the full disability benefit and presumptions and allow them to qualify for a full pension after 20 years, but would offer a less-generous basic allowance than under Tier 2.

The Governor, according to the UFA, will be speaking at a rally in support of the union-backed disability bill scheduled to be held in Albany on June 10 at noon. The union is mobilizing both active Firefighters and retirees to make the trip, using buses that will depart from multiple sites in New York City, and hoped to bring at least 500 members north to dramatize the issue. A message from Mr. Cassidy described it as a “must-attend” rally for Firefighters who are currently under the Tier 3 disability provision.

The Legislature is due to adjourn for the year on June 17, although there is always the chance it could be called back to a Special Session to complete unfinished business sometime in the fall.