Updated June 21, 2016, 11:50 am

A Tale of Two Unions In Differing Outcomes On Disability Upgrade


STEVE CASSIDY: 'A big deal for the UFA.'
PATRICK J. LYNCH: Thinks 'politics' victimized members

Beyond the disparate results, there were no surprises in last week’s conclusion of bids by the unions representing cops and firefighters for disability-benefit upgrades for newer members: the Uniformed Firefighters Association got unanimous approval in both houses of the State Legislature, while the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association couldn’t even get its proposal voted on.

The bill affecting Firefighters hired from 2010 forward was viewed as a done deal long before the State Assembly voted 113-0 in its favor about 9:30 p.m. June 16, the day after the State Senate passed it by a count of 61-0. Mayor de Blasio’s agreement as part of a contract deal reached last August to support legislation giving those members disability pensions equal to 75 percent of final average salary, tax-free, had served as a prelude for the City Council earlier this month to unanimously approve the necessary home-rule message to have the measure considered in Albany.

Cuomo Signing Imminent

A jubilant Steve Cassidy, the president of the UFA, said in a June 17 phone interview that Governor Cuomo—who declared his support for the upgrade in the spring of 2015—had committed to signing it into law prior to the June 27 induction of a class of 300 probationary Firefighters.

“It’s a big deal for the UFA,” Mr. Cassidy said. “I don’t wanna have to worry about one group of Firefighters running into a burning building worrying about how they’ll take care of their families if they’re hurt, at the same time that the rest of us have never had that worry.”

He was referring to the fact that the upgraded disability benefit had been the standard for more-senior Firefighters until then-Gov. David Paterson in June 2009 vetoed a Tier 2 extender bill that had been routinely approved going back to the early 1980s. This put both Police Officers and Firefighters hired after 2009 in Tier 3 of the pension system, which limits disability pensions for career-ending injuries to 50 percent of final average salary, which can be reduced by half of whatever Social Security disability benefits those retirees receive.

Growing Numbers Affected

The PBA and UFA have contended that at its most-extreme, recently hired members of the two unions who suffered a career-ending injury could receive a benefit of as little as $27 a day under Tier 3. Nearly half the PBA’s 24,000 members are under Tier 3; the upcoming class of Firefighters will bring the UFA’s Tier 3 contingent to 2,300.

The newer Firefighters will have to contribute an additional 2 percent of salary to the Fire Pension Fund beyond the standard 3 percent that more-senior colleagues were already paying. Mr. Cassidy has said that the improved coverage made this a price well worth paying, expressing doubts that any already-hired Firefighters who have the option of sticking with the old disability benefit to avoid the higher contribution would do so. For those starting with next week’s Fire Academy class, the added contribution and the benefit it provides will be mandatory.

Entitled to ‘Presumptions’

The bill also puts newer Firefighters at the same level as more-experienced colleagues on what are known as “the presumptions.” These are various illnesses, including strokes, certain cancers, heart and lung diseases, and infectious diseases, that if contracted are presumed to be job-related and therefore entitle employees to disability pensions.

In contrast, PBA officials balked at a proposal from Labor Commissioner Robert W. Linn that, while it required just a 1.5 percent added sal­ary contribution for newer Po­lice Officers, was considered excessive by union President Patrick J. Lynch.

That belief is based on the fact that the city gave the UFA what amounted to a 2.3-point discount on Chief Actuary Sherry Chan’s calculation that the cost of the upgrade to the city amounted to 4.3 percent. Since her valuation for police officers, who have a significantly lower disability-retirement rate than firefighters, was 2 percent, the city’s offer to the PBA constituted just a half-point discount to its members. The union had argued that treating it on an equal basis with the UFA would have meant no additional salary charge for its rank and file, and one official indicated last week that the city’s offer, as well as the late date at which it was made, wasn’t “designed to get serious consideration.”

Questions Timing

This official, speaking conditioned on anonymity, said that Mr. Linn hadn’t presented that number until late in the afternoon of June 10. The timing was significant for two reasons: it came after a PBA delegates meeting had already concluded, making it impossible to solicit their input quickly, and at a point when the clock was rapidly ticking.

Peter Abbate, Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Government Employees, had already made clear that for a bill to move in Albany, the PBA would have needed to have a home-rule message and an accompanying fiscal note on its cost submitted to the Legislature by the following Tuesday. This timetable left little time for serious negotiations that would have been needed to close the gap between the two sides, the union official indicated.

Lynch: ‘Playing Politics’

Four days prior to that city offer, Mr. Lynch had issued a statement accusing the de Blasio administration of “playing politics with police officers who are injured protecting their city… Our members cannot be made to pay more than their fair share to cover the Mayor’s political debts.”

That seemed to be a reference to the break the city gave the UFA compared to Ms. Chan’s valuation. Where the PBA went through a bruising arbitration battle on a new contract with the city last fall, the UFA has had a much-smoother, if sometimes-contentious, relationship with the Mayor, and its contract deal helped cement a wage pattern for uniformed employees that the city used to its advantage in the arbitration case.

The hard feelings between Mr. Lynch and City Hall had persisted, with no substantive discussions on disability-benefit relief for newer cops until two weeks ago, even as details were being resolved to ensure the UFA measure would go through with no problem.

An added source of friction in recent weeks has been the PBA hiring Tusk Strategies as its outside public-relations consultant. The firm is headed by Bradley Tusk, a former top aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has begun an effort to enlist a candidate to oppose Mr. de Blasio’s re-election next year. He commissioned a poll released earlier this month that showed the Mayor’s potential vulnerability, as he held just a 1-point lead in a hypothetical match-up with City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is considered a potential challenger.

Mr. Lynch has made clear that he would be interested in being part of the process of selecting an opponent.

There were other, more-tangible reasons the city did not offer the PBA a discount of the magnitude that it offered the UFA for its members. One obvious one was that a couple of weeks ago it provided similar upgraded disability coverage to Sanitation Workers and Correction Officers, utilizing a provision of the New York City Employees’ Retirement System’s bylaws that permitted the change without legislation provided the affected union members increased their pension contributions to spare the city added costs. In those cases, the extra sal­ary being paid exactly matched Ms. Chan’s valuations: 1.3 percent for Sanitation Workers, 0.9 percent for Correction Officers.

‘A Reasonable Proposal’

Mr. Linn said that with all the factors considered, “We thought we made a reasonable proposal” to the police union.

The PBA official said, “we don’t begrudge Fire or Sanit or Correction getting what they did.” But the fact that the PBA was shut out of a benefit that Mr. Lynch believed the city had “a moral obligation” to provide to newer officers, this official said, was likely to reaffirm the finding in a union survey released several months ago: that “90 to 100 percent of the Police Officers believe the Mayor does not support them.”