Advocates for granting pension parity with uniformed first-responders to civilian 9/11 responders stricken with a World Trade Center illness were back before state legislators pressing their case July 17, less than a month after a bill failed to move in Albany.
They used a 9/11 WTC benefit roundtable held by State Sen. Martin Golden, chair of the Senate Committee on Civil Service and Pensions, to renew their bid. Sens. Tony Avella and Brian A. Benjamin were also in attendance as public employees, their lawyers and union officials freely engaged with the executive leadership of the state and city pension systems.
15,000 May Qualify
It is estimated that 15,000 civilian public employees, working both for the city and the state, were part of the response and clean-up of the World Trade Center, including members of District Council 37, Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the New York State Public Employees Federation.
The myriad of civilian job titles involved, because of the unprecedented scale of the impact zone and recovery effort, include everything from bus driver to heavy-equipment operator to Emergency Medical Technician.
Despite a late-session bi-partisan push in Albany by Sens. Golden and Avella, the parity measure was not taken up. The bill was also sponsored by Assemblyman David Weprin, but it did not get a vote in the lower legislative house.
The Senate panel heard from civilian public employees who have documented World Trade Center diseases but continue working because they can’t afford to retire.
Involved Early and Often
Timothy Demeo, 49, is a professional engineer employed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as an emergency-spill responder and advanced-hazardous-materials technician.
“I actually pulled around Battery Park when the second plane hit,” Mr. Demeo told the panel. “I was injured…I was walked out that day with my colleagues and I was treated out in a hospital in Queens with some physical injuries.”
He continued, “I was assigned to return to the Trade Center as a member of the DEC’s World Trade Center Task Force, where I worked very closely with the NYPD ESU and the FDNY’s Special Ops. I spent more than 1,000 hours down under the pile recovering the various fuels in all the surrounding buildings…I worked there for five and a half months.”
Mr. Demeo said the years since have taken a heavy toll.
'Fully Disabled' Yet Toiling
“I have had four surgeries,” he said. “I just met with a new surgeon last week and I need another surgery in the very near term. My doctors have been writing me out fully disabled for several years…I have over a dozen certified conditions with the World Trade Center Health Program…again my doctors are telling me it is not in my best interest to continue to work.”
But, Mr. Demeo said that because he qualifies for a pension of just one-third his average salary, that is also taxable, he has no choice but to keep working.
“My employing agency still refuses to provide me the highest level of respiratory protection to protect my health moving forward,” he said. “I am in a very difficult situation. I have a young family, I have three kids, college to pay for, 15 years left on my mortgage. How am I going to survive?”
Artie Syken, an employee with the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, was assigned after 9/11 to canvass Battery Park City, just across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center. The 92-acre residential complex that housed 9,000 people was seriously contaminated after the Twin Towers collapse.
'Ping Pong Ball in Throat'
“I developed thyroid cancer in July of 2009. I woke up one morning and I had a ping pong ball in my throat,” Mr. Syken said. “I lost 40 percent of my lung capacity and I have reflux. I went to retire three years or four years ago. When I went down to the pension system, the first hurdle was the presumption, which was worked out. I have it on file. The second hurdle I had was to ask if I was entitled to three-quarters. They said ‘no, because your local is not covered.’”
He continued, “It shouldn’t be about who you worked for or what uniform you wore. No disrespect for the uniformed services, but everybody was breathing the same dirty filthy air. We had no masks the first few days. I was going through Battery Park, up and down the flights of stairs looking for dead dogs and dead people. It was terrible.”
But he said if he should be forced to retire under current law, he will be the victim of a “double standard” that exists in the pension system but not in the Federal Victims’ Compensation Fund, where there is parity between uniformed and civilians who became ill after serving at the site.
Senators Vow to Act
All three Senators at the roundtable were visibly moved by the accounts of Mr. Demeo and Mr. Syken and vowed to push for the parity bill in the next session.
“I am listening to all the different issues with the insurance and the benefits and the bureaucratic nonsense and I am thinking to myself this is such a disgrace that we can’t resolve these things at a much-faster pace, because these people are dying now,” Mr. Avella said in an interview.
“We owe it to them,” said Mr. Golden. “Everybody that was down here that responded and worked to help others, either on their own time volunteering, or as a [public] employee, deserves to be taken care of, not just for themselves, but for their families, and the future of those families.”
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