October 8, 2017

EMS Unions Protest Double Standard On 9/11 Disability Grants

According to union officials for FDNY Emergency Medical Service workers, there is a double standard in the handling by the city of their 9/11 health-related disability claims compared to the disposition of such claims by Firefighters and fire officers.

They say that even though EMS personnel faced the same conditions on 9/11 and for the months after in lower Manhattan, they are being turned down at a much higher rate by the New York City Employees’ Retirement System than their colleagues who belong to the Fire Pension Fund.

‘Grossly Unfair’ Sometimes

The stakes are high for the ill EMTs and their families. If granted the line-of-duty disability status, they are entitled to an allowance equal to three-quarters of final average salary and tax-free.

“Part of the problem is that NYCERS itself is not as experienced with dealing with these kinds of first-responder, occupationally-related, disability claims like the Police and Fire departments are that have their own pension boards with a certain level of expertise with these issues,” said Robert Ungar, legislative counsel for District Council 37’s Local 2507 EMTs and Local 3621 EMS Officers. “These denials can be grossly unfair, because the only option is to hire a lawyer and go the Article 78 route, and how many times can you come up with the $10,000 for the appeal? Sometimes it means these members have to walk away entirely without getting any relief because you are already sick and disabled and you have run out of money to keep fighting it.”

The disparity was first reported in last week’s New York Post, which reported that NYCERS had rejected almost half of the disability claims filed by EMTs and paramedics as compared to a 75-percent approval rate for Firefighters and Officers, by the FDNY Pension Fund.

NYCERS: 57% Approved

NYCERS responded in an email, however: “To correct the statistics used in the NY Post article, for calendar year 2016, 57% of all EMT/EMS World Trade Center applications were approved and 28% were not eligible to file under the World Trade Center Law; 15% of the 2016 applications were denied.”

“This has been a long-standing issue,” said Mr. Ungar.

“It’s a crime what they’re doing to EMTs and paramedics who got sick. It’s a game of attrition,” Gary Smiley, 53, a retired paramedic with asthma and PTSD, told the Post. His disability claim was turned down by NYCERS. “They want you to go away and die.”

“These workers work so hard to take care of the public while the system is turning their back on them,” said EMT Don Faeth, the former Secretary-Treasurer of Local 2507. “For too long EMTs and Paramedics have been treated differently than the other first-responders they stand shoulder to shoulder with, and that has to stop.”

Harrowing Experience

According to Mr. Smiley’s account of the events of 9/11 that he gave the World Trade Center Task Force investigators, he was assigned to Battalion 31 and survived a tower collapse by diving under his truck after a “little voice” in his head told him to crawl underneath the rig. “And that’s where for about the next 15 minutes I remember a lot of debris hitting the truck,” he said, recalling having great difficulty breathing or seeing anything. “There was no warning when the buildings came down even after the first collapse. You really didn’t even have an inclination that the second tower was going to come down. I don’t think anybody was aware,” according to his transcribed account.

He was admitted to the hospital for a few days with severe respiratory distress and severe smoke inhalation. But after a few days, he was drawn back to the site. “I went back down Friday night on my own time to dig with some guys from New York Hospital because I just felt that I needed to pitch in and see what there was,” according to his account.

Mr. Smiley told The Post that he went to court and a judge ordered the NYCERS board to reconsider its denial of his case, but his appeal was denied. He was, however, deemed disabled by the Federal Government and qualified for Social Security disability.

NYCERS general counsel Ilyse Sisolak said she would not comment on the status of the disability cases to The Post because “the inquiry pertains to medical conditions of its members.”

Golden Questions Disparity

State Sen. Martin Golden said, “Why is there this disparity between the New York State Police, the NYPD, the FDNY and the Emergency Medical Service people under NYCERS who were down there at the World Trade Center and now have the same health issues?”

He said he planned to hold hearings so he could learn “directly from NYCERS” about its rationale for denying the disability claims of public employees who “have clearly documented they served down there at Ground Zero” and who have also successfully made their case to be classified as disabled with Social Security Administration.

Last year Mr. Golden introduced legislation that would empower Judges who are hearing disability appeals to award those benefits.