Two months after District Council 37 and the de Blasio administration reached an agreement on extending unlimited sick time to civilian city workers battling World Trade Center-related illnesses, the deal remains a lightning rod for controversy.
The agreement executed on Oct. 23 between DC 37, Executive Director Henry Garrido and city Labor Commissioner Robert W. Linn was to act as a template for the rest of the city’s civilian workforce enrolled in other unions, as well as for city managers.
‘Uniforms’ Long Had It
Uniformed employees including cops, firefighters, sanitation workers and correction officers have long been guaranteed unlimited sick time for work-related injuries.
In 2017, Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature granted that benefit to all state workers who suffered from work-related WTC health conditions, as well as to similarly situated county and local public workers from outside of the five boroughs.
At the end of the 2018 legislative year, a proposal that would have extended that same protection to the city’s municipal workforce passed the State Senate unanimously but died in the Assembly after the de Blasio administration circulated a memo raising concerns about the legislation.
Mayor: Should Bargain It
The Mayor’s position has been that granting the benefit should be subject to collective bargaining. Estimates on those eligible have ranged from 2,000 to 4,000.
Under the DC 37 agreement, those eligible need a “notice of participation” memorializing that they were part of the WTC recovery and clean-up efforts from the New York City Employees’ Retirement System and suffer from a qualifying WTC condition that leaves them currently “unable to perform their duties.”
According to NYCERS, of the 11,103 applications for WTC participation certification, more than 7,000 have been approved and roughly 3,500 were denied. More than 500 are waiting for responses from city agencies.
At a Dec. 17 City Council hearing, 9/11 first-responder advocates blasted both the de Blasio administration and DC 37 for taking too long to implement the benefit, which they asserted was still not available.
Both the union and the city countered that, in addition to establishing a specific code in employees’ CityTime payroll account designated for the WTC benefit, they were still working with providers like the World Trade Center Health Program on technical issues related to documenting how enrollees’ medical conditions might limit their ability to perform their work duties.
Urging Unions to Sign On
“We’re encouraging the remaining unions to sign onto this deal to make this benefit available to all heroes who responded to 9/11 and its aftermath,” Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for the Mayor, said in a statement. “At the same time, we’re working around the clock with unions, City agencies and WTC Health Programs to implement the technical infrastructure that will deliver this benefit to countless heroes.”
Traffic Enforcement Agent Linda Mercer, a 30-year veteran who suffers from an aggressive form of cancer that has spread from her breast to her liver, has continued to work throughout her arduous treatment for fear of losing her job.
“Back in October on the City Hall steps, I was asking Mayor de Blasio to sign it…but as of this day I still don’t have unlimited sick time,” she told the joint hearing of the Council’s Labor and Health Committees. “Come Jan. 19 I have to go back and do more chemo, and my doctor said it is going to be a heavy dose and that I won’t be able to come to work. So, I am asking you all to help me.”
Following her testimony, Ms. Mercer told reporters that when she asked DC 37 Local 983 for clarification as to when she would begin getting unlimited sick time, “they didn’t have an answer.”
Her attorney, Matt McCauley, confirmed that she did not yet have the benefit.
Garrido: She’s Covered
But Mr. Garrido countered by email that Ms. Mercer was covered and only had to “follow the procedures outlined in the agreement.”
“We should not be here talking about sick leave and 9/11 responders,” testified John Feal, whose non-profit FealGood Foundation advocates for WTC first-responders. “We want responders like Linda Mercer and hundreds of others who responded to 9/11 who became deathly ill because of their heroic actions to get unlimited sick.”
He continued, “I am here to tell everybody, tell every union, do not negotiate with the Mayor’s Office because they will be back in Albany in January to get legislation passed.”
In a phone interview, Vincent Variale, president of DC’s 37 Local 3621, which represents Emergency Medical Service officers, defended the deal. “It is always more difficult when it comes to putting something like this together so it works,” he said.
Advantage for EMS
He pointed out that the EMS workforce had a leg up on the rest of the city’s civilian workforce because “we have things like the Bureau of Health Services where we have doctors that have us already registered under World Trade Center certifications….Other civilian agencies don’t have this. They are all over the place. They really don’t have a central medical board or anything like this. That’s probably the toughest part of this.”
Mr. Variale said that he expected a bulletin to be released for EMS workers before Christmas which will provide instructions on how to sign up for the benefit. “So, anybody who is currently sick and needs sick leave will be able to go to the CityTime and punch in a code and they will have unlimited sick leave to do whatever is required for their 9/11-related illness,” he said.
During the hearing, I. Daneek Miller, chair of the Council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee, asked Steven Banks, General Counsel for the Office of Labor Relations, about the status of the benefit for the other unions not covered by the DC 37 agreement.
“So, it is not completely in our control,” Mr. Banks said. “This is a bilateral conversation. We have reached out to all of those units and they have come back with very legitimate questions about how this works. Some of the other unions have to get up to speed…It’s our expectation that most, if not all of this, will be wrapped up in the coming weeks.”
No Concessions Sought
Mark Levine, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Health, asked representatives of the de Blasio administration if the city had tried to use the leverage of the WTC unlimited-sick-time benefit to win concessions from the unions.
“From the outset, when we started discussions with the unions about this benefit, our intention was to keep the discussion solely on the issue of extending sick-leave benefits to affected employees,” responded Sherif Solomain, a Senior Policy Adviser to First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan. “In no way did we intend, nor did we ask for, trade-offs or any sort of compromises outside of this issue or any other labor issue.”
One union source took issue with the way that the de Blasio administration was describing the process. “It was given to us with a side-letter basically saying, this is it,” he said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s talk about what would be best for your members.’ ”
The same source described a provision in the DC 37 agreement regarding how the unlimited leave would be calculated in terms of an employee’s retirement package payout as a “giveback.”
Nullifies Accrued Leave
“Terminal Leave Upon Retirement: Any accrued sick leave time that a member has remaining upon retirement shall have deducted from it the amount of sick leave time for which the member was away from work utilizing the 9/11 sick leave benefit,” according to the Oct. 23 letter signed by Mr. Garrido and Mr. Linn.
But that critique was not universal. Joe Colangelo, president of Service Employees International Union Local 246 representing Auto Mechanics, said, “Your sick time is protected while you’re employed, and I don’t think it is unreasonable that when you retire that an adjustment is made based on the length of the unlimited sick time you used. The city should not have to pay for the unlimited sick time twice.”
After the Council hearing, Mr. Levine said he wished the Mayor had opted to extend the benefit by executive order.
“Failing that, we want negotiations with the unions to be wrapped up as soon as possible so that everyone who was doing their duty and was put in harm’s way is covered immediately,” he said.
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.