Updated Sep 12, 2016
By RICHARD STEIER
The Sept. 8 ceremony in which Governor Cuomo signed into law an improved disability bill for city Firefighters hired after 2009 took just 15 minutes, from his introduction along with the heads of the two firefighter unions through the rousing speech in which he called it “unconscionable” that until now they had been deprived of the right to a tax-free disability benefit equal to 75 percent of final average salary that was long available to more-senior colleagues.
But the relative brevity of the event was more than made up for by the emotion generated in a United Federation of Teachers meeting hall that was used because the Uniformed Firefighters Association had nothing comparable in size that could have held 500 union delegates and line Firefighters who were in attendance.
‘A Staunch Ally’
UFA President Steve Cassidy presented the Governor with a fire helmet, calling him “a staunch supporter and ally of firefighters for years” on matters ranging from safety to health care provided under the Federal Zadroga Law.
Mr. Cuomo then stepped to the mic. After crediting State Sen. Martin Golden and Assemblyman Peter Abbate, who were sitting in the front row, for their work in steering the measure to unanimous approval in both houses of the State Legislature, he said of the bill he was about to enact, “This is about the relationship between this state and the firefighters of the New York City Fire Department” and was meant to place “a value on your service.”
At the moment he spoke, the newer firefighters were still covered under a Tier 3 disability benefit that Mr. Cassidy and his counterpart at the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, Jake Lemonda
—who was also on the dais—argued was a mockery of meaningful protection in the event that a firefighter suffered a career-ending injury. It gave firefighters an allowance equal to just 50 percent of final-average-salary, subject to taxes and additional reductions if they were receiving Social Security disability benefits, and was subject to forfeiture if they found other employment. In extreme situations for the least-senior employees, it would give them just $27 a day, Mr. Cassidy had argued during his campaign for much of the last three years to place them on equal footing with those hired prior to 2009.
That was the year in which Mr. Cuomo’s predecessor, Gov. David Paterson, vetoed a Tier 2 extender bill for city cops and firefighters that had been routinely renewed going back to the early 1980s. It had carried over coverage under that more-generous pension tier even as the rest of the city and state workforce hired from mid-1976 forward was placed under first Tier 3 and then Tier 4 of the pension system.
Hidden Hand Behind Veto?
While Mr. Paterson said the veto was about saving the state money, the fact that it affected payments into the police and fire retirement systems for the city rather than the state, as well as effusive praise offered by a spokesman for then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his action, fed the suspicion that the Mayor had a hidden hand in the Governor’s decision. During the recent battles over improved bills for both those groups, Mr. Paterson expressed regret for the portion of the veto that had so sharply reduced the disability benefit. (Other consequences of that veto were a less-generous allowance and a requirement that those placed in Tier 3 work 22 years to qualify for a pension equal to half their final-average-salary, rather than the traditional 20 years.)
Mr. Cuomo, along with the two key legislative committee chairs from Brooklyn, Mr. Golden and Mr. Abbate, had been supportive of the improved disability coverage—which will also give the newer firefighters the presumption that certain diseases they might incur were job-related and therefore entitled them to the upgraded benefit—going back to the spring of 2015, when the Governor was the featured speaker at an Albany rally organized by the UFA to enlist public support for the change. But the de Blasio administration at the time opposed a home-rule message in the City Council that was needed for the bill to gain passage in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito blocked the bill from coming to a vote, killing its chances.
By early August last year, however, Mr. Cassidy had negotiated a wage contract with the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations under which he reluctantly agreed to accept the same wage terms—11-percent raises over seven years—that had previously been approved by most of the city’s other uniformed unions. This cemented a contract pattern that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association at that moment was trying to top, and three months later its effort was thwarted by an arbitrator’s ruling.
City Support Key to Deal
Mr. Cassidy had justified accepting raises he knew were unlikely to keep pace with the inflation rate over that seven-year span by pointing to other gains the deal provided. One was a restoration of a fifth Firefighter at 20 engine companies—four years after the Bloomberg administration had eliminated that right for 60 companies—and language locking in that additional staffing. The other was a pledge by the de Blasio administration to support the improved disability benefit, conditioned on the newer firefighters contributing an additional 3 percent of salary toward their pensions, beyond the standard 3-percent pay-in.
That added salary contribution actually got whittled down to 2 percent this spring after Mr. Cassidy pointed out to city officials that in addressing the inequity in disability benefits, they were potentially creating another one between his members and their colleagues working in other state jurisdictions. Those latter firefighters, who are under Tier 5 of the pension system—which took effect at virtually the same time that Mr. Paterson vetoed the Tier 2 extender bill—pay 6 percent of their salary into their retirement system while qualifying for the “75-percent” disability benefit, but they are eligible for retirement at full pension after 20 years of service. Requiring the same contribution from his newer members, Mr. Cassidy said, would leave them having to work two years longer for a full pension in order to qualify for the same disability benefit if their careers were cut short.
And so the de Blasio administration agreed to reduce the added contribution to 2 percent of salary, for a total of 5 percent, and the revised legislation moved swiftly through the Council and then both houses of the Legislature in June.
PBA’s Unhappy Wind-Up
The PBA, which has had a rancorous relationship with the Mayor on issues that go beyond their differences at the bargaining table, sought a greater discount on what its newer members should have to pay for the improved benefit, pointing out that the city’s Chief Actuary, Sherry Chan, had concluded the cost to the city of the firefighter benefit was potentially 2.3 percent greater than for cops because of a significantly higher percentage of disability retirements in the FDNY. Talks broke down, however, in mid-June when Labor Commissioner Robert W. Linn offered the PBA a discount of just half a percent on Ms. Chan’s valuation, which at 1.5 percent of additional salary to be contributed was 1.1 points more than what PBA President Patrick J. Lynch believed was appropriate.
The acrimony that lingers between the union and the Mayor from that battle was reflected in Mr. Lynch’s statement following the bill- signing.
“The Governor’s action today on behalf of firefighters leaves us optimistic that an adequate disability benefit can be achieved for New York City police officers, who are now the only uniformed workers in New York City and the only police officers in all of New York State without this benefit,” he said. “But we can’t accomplish this goal unless politics are removed from the process. We look forward to working with the City Council, the State Legislature and the Governor to correct this injustice, and hope the Mayor will join this effort and stop playing games with the lives of New York City cops.”
City: Open to a Deal
Mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein responded, “We reached voluntary agreements with Fire, Sanitation and Correction [unions] back in June. We have always stated our willingness to reach a fair and responsible agreement with the PBA and we remain open to doing so.”
The contrasting fates of the two unions’ bids for disability improvements went unmentioned during Mr. Cuomo’s rousing 10-minute speech. He noted that his brother-in-law, Brian O’Donoghue, had been a Firefighter in Manhattan prior to marrying his sister Madeline, and recalled marveling at what a small flashlight he had been given to navigate the darkness of buildings that were burning or had people trapped inside them.
“You are people who are brave, who are risking their lives to help others in particularly dangerous situations,” he told the fire-union officials and the newer Firefighters who would benefit from the bill he was about to sign. “That’s who you are.”
Evokes 9/11 Sacrifices
He noted that the commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 9/11 would feature a motorcycle ride down from Albany that once in Manhattan would first go to Rescue Co. 1 to mark the occasion and would then retrace that unit’s path to the World Trade Center on the fateful day when 343 FDNY members lost their lives during the rescue attempts.
There were no illusions about the danger they were speeding toward, Mr. Cuomo told the gathering, and yet, “Nobody got off the truck. Nobody got sick. Nobody just walked away. They knew exactly where they were going.” Eleven members of Rescue 1 lost their lives in the collapse of the North Tower of the Trade Center.
“That’s what you’re made of,” the Governor continued. “Otherwise, you don’t go walking through that door with a flashlight looking for a life to save.”
‘What Bill is About’
“That’s what this disability bill is all about. How do you justify a lower disability payment to the New York City firefighters than to all the other firefighters in the state?”
Alluding to his predecessor’s veto that had saddled the 2,300 newest Firefighters with an inferior benefit, Mr. Cuomo said, “The people of the state should have your back. It was unconscionable that the disability bill was dropped. We respect what you do, we respect how you do it. We respect the sacrifice you make. And as long as I’m Governor of the state, so help me God, we’re gonna have your back.”