Politico New York

09/08/16 01:39 PM EDT

Cuomo signs legislation restoring disability benefits for firefighters


Three days before the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that will allow recently hired city firefighters and firefighters who joined the force after 2009 to receive more disability payments when they are injured on the job, a change Cuomo said signaled New Yorkers’ “basic respect” for the sacrifices firefighters make for New York City residents.

The new legislation will raise the amount of disability pension some New York City firefighters can earn from a current level of 50 percent to 75 percent. The amount of disability pension had been lowered in 2009, through a state law passed under former Gov. David Paterson’s administration, in response to the economic crisis. The state also reduced Social Security benefits for firefighters in 2009, and the city’s firefighters’ union has been working for years to restore the benefits.

“This is about the relationship between the people of this state and the firefighters of the New York City fire department,” Cuomo said Thursday to a roomful of 500 firefighters in lower Manhattan.

“How do you possibly justify a lower disability payment to the New York City firefighters than the firefighters in the rest of the state?” Cuomo said Thursday to a roomful of an estimated 500 firefighters in lower Manhattan.

The benefit enhancement begins immediately, Cuomo told reporters, and will impact an estimated 2,300 firefighters.

The legislation was passed in Albany this year only after a deal was hammered out between the United Firefighters Association and the de Blasio administration earlier this spring. Under the terms of the deal, firefighters who are in the Tier 3 and Tier 6 pension levels will contribute an additional 2-3 percent of their salaries to cover the additional disability payments. And the social security offset put in place in 2009 will also be eliminated.

A little more than a year ago, the New York City Council approved passage of a home rule message for Albany lawmakers signaling their support for legislation restoring the pension disability amounts to their pre-2009 levels.

Discussions between the city and uniformed officers about enhanced disability benefits for firefighters were originally part of broader negotiations that also included potential disability pension enhancements for NYPD officers, but negotiations between the de Blasio administration and the Patrolmens' Benevolent Association, the union representing city police officers, stalled this spring.

PBA president Pat Lynch said in a statement that Cuomo's signing of the firefighters' pension enhancement legislation left him "optimistic" about the possibility of passing legislation to enhance NYPD officers' disability pensions too.

The new legislation will cost the City of New York $6 million in the current fiscal year, and will increase to $12.6 million by fiscal year 2021, according to an analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission.

City firefighter pensions are growing — New York City firefighters and fire officers who retired during the 2016 fiscal year were eligible to receive average pensions of $119,863 annually, a 6 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Empire Center.

The Empire Center found that 17 percent of uniformed FDNY retirees were eligible for pensions greater than $100,000 a year in the recently concluded fiscal year, up 9 percent from 2011, when only 8 percent of firefighters were eligible for pensions over six figures. The high numbers of retirees eligible for pension benefits higher than $100,000 is attributable to the high numbers of firefighters retiring on disability as opposed to normal retirement, the Empire Center said.

In 2015, 54 percent of the Department’s 17,261 retirees and beneficiaries retired on disability, said E.J. McMahon, the president of the Empire Center.

The high average levels of firefighter and fire officer pensions largely reflect a high percentage of retirees receiving line-of-duty disability pensions. In 2014, 66 percent of those retiring from the department were retiring on disability, the Empire Center said. Between 1994 and 2001, the number of firefighters with disability pensions increased from 40 percent to 60 percent of the annual total number of retirements, the Center said.