Legislators Approve 3 Bills to Aid Civilian 9/11 Responders

Bob Hennelly

June 24, 2019

Originally published in The Chief on June 24, 2019.

GARY SMILEY: Will produce quality care

Almost 18 years after the World Trade Center attacks, Albany lawmakers are still trying to address issues raised by civil servants who were part of the 9/11 effort but have had to hire lawyers to pursue pension-disability claims.

For years, first-responders have complained that the New York City Employees' Retirement System’s lack of medical expertise on WTC-related diseases like cancer resulted in lengthy delays and dubious denials that forced them to take the pension system to court.

Several city workers have such cases.

In previous testimony, NYCERS officials conceded that the system’s lack of physicians with expertise in WTC diseases was problematic.

Under state legislation passed this session, NYCERS would be able to expand the number of physicians on its medical board to 24, as well as broaden the range of specialties to include areas like cancer oncology.

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who ousted veteran Republican Sen. Martin Golden in 2018 and replaced him as chair of the Senate Civil Service and Pensions Committee, authored the Medical Board reform measures.

“Prior to my election last year, I sat on the NYCERS board as General Counsel for the Brooklyn Borough President,” he said in a phone interview. “I saw a lot of the challenges occurring in terms of applicants being unable to get a verified or accurate diagnosis from the Medical Board.”

Retired Emergency Medical Technician Gary Smiley, a 9/11 responder who now handles WTC issues for District Council 37 Local 2507 members, said Mr. Gounardes’s measure was long overdue.

To Get Right Treatment

“We had members going in with specific ailments, respiratory ailments, ea,r nose and throat, and of course cancers, and for the last 10 years they have been seen by ER doctors, podiatrists, who knows what,” he said. “Now, thanks to Senator Gounardes and his colleagues, NYCERS will be forced to hire professionals that can evaluate our members who will understand these illnesses and can treat our members appropriately.”

Mr. Gounardes also pressed for passage of unlimited sick time for city civil servants who were certified with a WTC health condition and hope to return to work.

Historically, only city cops and firefighters were entitled to unlimited sick time for work-related injuries or disease.

In 2018, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature extended that benefit to state workers, transit workers and to non-New York City civil servants who were 9/11 responders now battling WTC ailments.

Mayor Blocked ’18 Bill

Last year, the de Blasio administration lobbied against the bill in Albany that would have extended that same benefit to municipal employees who were 9/11-responders with WTC conditions.

The de Blasio administration subsequently negotiated a deal with DC 37 to provide the unlimited-sick-time benefit to city workers battling WTC conditions and committed to executing similar pacts with other unions.

Mr. Gounardes said he felt the Legislature still had a moral obligation to codify that benefit into state law. He said it “was just too much of a piecemeal approach” that could easily result in deserving WTC responders falling through the cracks. “It is a defined universe of people. So, it’s not like an open-ended blank check for everyone,” he added.

Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507, said his members needed the legal reinforcement from Albany. “Even though [the city] gave us this benefit, we still are facing issues with its implementation,” he said. “Only certain supervisors know how to input the codes. It’s not as smooth as they want people to believe.”

The bill passed the Senate and Assembly as the session came to a close.

101 Already Enrolled

According to the Mayor’s office, 101 people are already enrolled as a result of the unlimited sick time benefit that was the result of “working collaboratively” with city unions.

Assemblyman David Weprin and Sen. Jim Gaughran teamed up to pass legislation that provides three-quarters disability pensions to any members of the New York State and Local Employees Retirement System or New York State Teachers Retirement System who were part of the response-and-recovery effort and subsequently developed disabling WTC conditions.

“Hundreds of state employees responded in the hours, months and weeks after the towers came down,” Mr. Gaughran said in a statement. “They worked on the pile and they worked under the pile, side-by-side police and firefighters, but because of an unexplainable oversight, they lack the same protections as those considered uniformed employees.”

He continued, “Now they are sick, suffering serious conditions, and they are dying. This bill…ensures that these heroes are given the dignity and help they deserve.”

Governor Cuomo has editorialized in favor of unlimited sick time for city workers with WTC conditions, but his press office did not respond to a query about whether he would sign the three bills into law.