May 27, 2016

PBA Takes Its Disability-Pension Case Directly To City Council With Clock Ticking Against Change

Other Uniformed Unions Closer to Gaining Upgrades


Michael Friang
A LOBBYIST YOU CAN’T SAY NO TO: Carlos Rivero Jr., whose dad is a Police Officer in the 79th Precinct, offers the facts about the inadequate disability pension for newer hires that cops hope can be improved during a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association informational picket outside City Hall May 25.

Four-year-old Carlos Rivero Jr. stood outside the west gate of City Hall May 25, offering a flyer to anyone who wanted it stating “NYC cops protect our city. It’s time to protect them.”

His father, Carlos Sr., has been a Police Officer for five years—just long enough to be saddled with an inferior disability benefit that he fears would leave him unable as a single parent to support his son if he suffered a career-ending injury. “An officer gets shot in the line of duty, you get like $40 a day,” he explained.

11,000 Entitled to Less

Such a small payout would be one of the extreme cases, but Officer Rivero is one of 11,000 members of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association who because they were hired after 2009 are entitled to a disability benefit that is far less than those with more seniority could receive. They had come to City Hall last Wednesday morning to dramatize their plight and try to persuade City Council Members that it was urgent to address the situation quickly.

But those officers, 100 of whom made their pitch at both the east and west gates to elected officials and members of the public, appear less likely than firefighters, sanitation workers and correction officers in the same situation to get relief before the State Legislature adjourns for the year June 16.

Bills affecting employee groups in a single locality generally require a home-rule message from the legislative body for that locality before the Legislature will act on them. The City Council rarely grants such messages unless the Mayor consents. And PBA President Patrick J. Lynch, standing near the west gate, acknowledged, “The city’s had no discussions with us” about the disability issue.

Confirmation of that was provided the following morning by city Labor Commissioner Robert W. Linn, who said, “We’re in discussions with Fire, Correction and Sanitation.” He declined further comment regarding the situation with the PBA.

UFA Got City Pledge

One significant difference between the police union and those representing Firefighters, Correction Officers and Sanitation Workers is that the PBA’s most-recent contract was decided by an arbitrator last November, providing a pair of 1-percent raises under two-year contracts. The other unions all agreed to seven-year contracts providing a total of 11 percent in raises.

Of particular significance was that the Uniformed Firefighters Association pact included a commitment from the de Blasio administration to support a bill giving Firefighters hired after 2009 the right to a disability pension worth 75 percent of their final-average-salary, tax-free. Presently, they would be limited to a benefit equaling just 50 percent of final-average-salary, and subject to reduction based on any Social Security payments or outside income they received.

Neither the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association nor the Correction Officers Benevolent Association contracts included a commitment on legislative support from the city, which explains why they are negotiating with Mr. Linn. He declined to comment on why there are discussions with the UFA, but a reason was suggested a day earlier by Assemblyman Peter Abbate of Brooklyn, who heads the Assembly Committee on Government Employees. He said it seemed likely that the added employee contribution to the Fire Pension Fund meant to offset the city’s cost for the improved disability benefit, originally expected to be an extra 3 percent of salary, would now be 2 percent, for a total contribution of 5 percent for post-2009 Firefighter hires.

Uphill Road for PBA

UFA President Steve Cassidy declined comment on that statement, citing the ongoing discussions with Mr. Linn.

But Mr. Abbate also made clear the obstacle the PBA faces in contrast with the UFA, which based on its deal last August with the de Blasio administration figures to have no problem connected with a home-rule message from the Council once the terms of its legislation are finalized.

In making the appeal to individual Council Members, Mr. Lynch and his members were asking them to defy Mr. de Blasio and adopt a home-rule message that for the moment, at least, he would not support. The union would then need to persuade the Democratic-led Assembly, which normally is closely aligned with the Mayor, to also ignore his wishes.

This is not an impossible combination, Assemblyman Abbate said. “It will get done with a home-rule message,” he stated. “Without a home-rule message, no.”

Councilman Pessimistic

But that home-rule message could prove elusive—at least while the Legislature is still in session—according to Daneek Miller, a Queens Councilman who chairs the Civil Service and Labor Committee. He said that while he believed the PBA’s case was a valid one, he was uncertain decisions would be made in time to address it before the Legislature adjourns.

“It’ll be very difficult,” he said in an interview, “especially considering we’re dealing with two bodies of government, both here and in Albany.”

Mr. Lynch made clear in an interview that he hoped the urgency of the situation could speed the process even if Mr. de Blasio opposed a home-rule message. While the city’s insistence that newer Firefighters pay an added percentage of their salary toward their pensions to qualify for the upgraded disability benefit makes clear its concern about not taking on additional financial costs, the PBA leader contended, “It’s a right-and-wrong issue, not a dollars-and-cents issue. If we have Assembly and City Council Members who are looking at what’s right, we can get something done.” (The State Senate and Governor Cuomo previously made clear their support for legislation improving disability rights for newer city cops.)

Dates to Paterson Veto

The dilemma for newer officers has its roots in the 2009 decision by then-Gov. David Paterson to veto a bill extending coverage for new city cops and firefighters under Tier 2 of the pension system, where they had remained when Tier 3 was created for the rest of the state’s public-employee workforce back in the summer of 1976. Passage of the extender bill had become routine over three decades, and so Mr. Paterson’s veto came as a shock even though at the time both he and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg were looking to reduce pension costs in the wake of the national economic recession.

Eliminating Tier 2 coverage for new cops and firefighters did more than just deprive them of meaningful disability coverage. It also, by placing them under Tier 3 of the pension system, required that they work 22 years to qualify for a full pension, rather than the traditional 20, and work 25 if they wanted to be eligible for cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions. The PBA has emphasized that it is not looking to get the 20-year pension reinstated, or gain a restoration of the Tier 2 “presumptions,” under which ailments pertaining to the heart or lungs, for example, were presumed to be job-related and automatically entitled the affected cops to full disability pensions. A union spokesman said that merely requiring Tier 3 officers to work the extra two years to earn a full pension figures to save the city $30 billion over a 30-year period.

Mr. Lynch cited the injustice of the reduced Tier 3 disability benefit, and the further hit retirees would take because of a Social Security offset and the penalty if they found less-demanding employment that provided earnings about what they were permitted.

Heroic Attempt Scarred Her

One of the most-glaring examples of newer hires being treated unfairly involves Rosa Rodriguez, who was severely injured while responding to a fire in a Coney Island housing project two years ago that proved fatal to her partner, Dennis Guerra.

Ms. Rodriguez has been unable to return to full duty, the PBA leader said, and “her lungs and voice-box are scarred. She has four children, she lives in Howard Beach and now they’re asking her to live on $30,000 a year,” which he estimated would be her pension allowance if she retired.

The fact that she remains on light-duty status at full salary illustrates another problem union officials claim is caused by a disability benefit so inadequate that it’s a disincentive to retire. For every uniformed worker with injuries serious enough to make a return to full duty unlikely, there is an entitlement to remain on light-duty status, occupying a job line that would otherwise be available to a healthy candidate, which can stretch staffing thin.

“Those people are not gonna want to retire,” one union official said. Rather, they will sue if necessary under a provision of state law that entitles them to remain in a job line even if there is virtually no possibility of their returning to full service.

‘Wheels Turn Slowly’

Officer Rivero, standing with his young son, was asked what his reaction had been when a push by the unions last year failed to make headway last year in Albany because of the lack of a home-rule message from the Council.

“Not surprised at all,” he responded. “The wheels turn very slowly in New York politics.”

Was he worried that the PBA bill would meet a similar fate this year?

“I am hopeful we’ll get something passed,” he said.