State lawmakers want unlimited sick leave for city workers with 9/11 illnesses despite de Blasio

Thomas Tracy

June 10, 2019

Originally published in NY Daily News on June 10, 2019.

In this file photo, Andrew Gounardes, speaks at a rally at the Stars and Stripes Democratic Club in Brooklyn, New York on November 5, 2018. (Jesse Ward/for New York Daily News)

New York State legislators want to give unlimited sick leave to city employees with illnesses linked to Ground Zero, taking the power away from Mayor de Blasio, who is doling out the much-needed help on a piecemeal basis through the city’s unions.

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes’ (D-Brooklyn) 9/11 sick leave bill is in clear opposition to a plan created by the de Blasio administration, which is in the final stages of hammering out deals with each city union instead of providing blanket coverage to all employees.

“The city said they will take care of this themselves, but they have yet to solve it,” said Gounardes, who hopes all three bills will pass by the end of the legislative session in Albany. “In the meantime more people are getting sick. The city is letting them down here.”

The unlimited sick leave bill is one of three pieces of legislation known as the “9/11 Heroes Bills."

Other bills in the package call for additional physicians to be added to the New York City Employees’ Retirement System so city employees’ 9/11-related diagnoses can be approved quicker and for the FDNY to acknowledge that if a retiree comes down with specific cancers five years after leaving the department the illness was contracted during the performance of duties.

City officials say Gounardes’ unlimited sick leave bill is unnecessary: nearly all of the unions representing city employees have finalized sick leave agreements and about 90 employees with diagnosed 9/11-related conditions are being helped.

“Every city employee with a 9/11 illness is being taken care of,” one city official said.

Those being helped include FDNY and NYPD civilian workers who don’t normally get unlimited sick leave, EMTs, and paramedics, City Hall officials said.

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City employees getting unlimited sick leave work at the Department of Correction, Administration of Children’s Services, and Department of Transportation, officials said. All have been diagnosed with an illness related to 9/11 and can prove they spent time at Ground Zero after the terror attacks in 2001.

While police, firefighters, correction officers and sanitation workers were granted unlimited 9/11-related sick leave before these deals, about 4,000 civilian city workers couldn’t get the same benefit.

Critics and 9/11 survivor advocates were infuriated by the mayor’s union-by-union approach, claiming it took the city months to finalize details with no one getting the help they needed. There are also concerns that the sick leave could be altered every time the unions renegotiate with City Hall.

Others claim de Blasio’s plan has created nothing but chaos and puts politics before people.

“(These bills) will show the mayor of New York City that he’s wrong,” said 9/11 survivor advocate John Feal. “How do you ... bargain with a piece of legislation that was passed while people’s lives are on the line?”

In 2017, Gov. Cuomo signed a bill granting unlimited paid sick leave to state employees with a 9/11-related illness outside of New York City, but de Blasio did not follow suit.

In October, de Blasio approved the special sick leave for DC37, one of the city’s largest unions, vowing the agreement would form the basis for additional pacts with unions whose workers suffer with a 9/11-related illness.

City officials say the sick leave isn’t linked to the bargaining process; all union administrators have to do is sign on.

Gounardes and Assembly co-sponsors Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Queens) and Karines Reyes (D-Bronx) plan to hold a rally in Albany Thursday with 9/11 survivors to talk about the benefits of the three bills.

Despite City Hall’s claims, the mayor’s approach does not seem to be working, Gounardes said. His bill won’t replace what the city has already created, but will cover every city employee with a diagnosed 9/11-related illness whether they are in a union or not.

“There doesn’t seem to be any urgency to finish these deals and make sure that everyone is getting the help they need,” he said. “There should be no negotiations. This is a no brainer.”

“Our 9/11 heroes deserve straightforward, unlimited sick leave that’s not subject to the whims of any one administration,” he said. “Our bill would guarantee sick leave for all New York City workers, no matter which union they are in or if they are even part of a union, now and in the future. Government should make it easy for our 9/11 heroes suffering through illness and this bill accomplishes that."

City Hall spokesman Raul Contreras said the city’s current sick leave policy “covers all eligible employees who selflessly answered the call in the city’s darkest hour.”

“The program is operational and we encourage eligible employees who need time away from work to cope with a 9/11 illness to access this benefit, and we thank our partners in labor for making this program a reality," Contreras said.

If made law, Gounardes’ bill will once again pit de Blasio against Gov. Cuomo. They have repeatedly clashed in the past, but Gounardes said he’s looking at the bigger picture.

“I don’t view myself as a proxy in the relationship between the governor and the mayor,” he said. “That’s not why I’m doing this.”

“I see a problem here and I want to fix it," he said.