Governor Cuomo signed into law a bill reviving the September 11 Workers Protection Task Force as advocates warned that first-responders, who had endured World Trade Center-related diseases were now dying in significant numbers from the coronavirus.
"These brave men and women selflessly put their health and safety at risk to help New York recover in the aftermath of 9/11 and they deserve to be taken care of the way they took care of us," the Governor wrote in a signing statement. "This measure will help ensure they continue to receive the care they need, and that New York is able to act to meet their evolving needs."
'Face Additional Risks'
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who chairs the Committee on Civil Service and Pensions, said, "This population faces profound additional risks from the coronavirus pandemic...and we must do everything in our power to ensure our 9/11 responders have the benefits and health care they need at this time."
The state task force in 2005 was established to track the health effects for tens of thousands of first-responders who were part of the recovery effort around the World Trade Center that extended until May of 2002. In addition to collecting occupational-health data, the panel was charged with identifying gaps in pension and disability programs, with the aim of better serving those workers.
The legislation renews the task force through June 2025. Its mandate has been expanded to include analysis of average processing times for disability claims, notices of approval rates for claims, lack of disability coverage for public employees who participated in the Trade Center work but were not members of a retirement system at the time; appeals processes, and opportunities to synchronize benefits and identify individuals who participated in the response.
Initially, the Bloomberg administration resisted union claims that the toxic air in that part of Manhattan was responsible for a precipitous rise in respiratory ailments and cancers. Less than a week after 9/11, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement that the air was "safe to breathe."
Spoke Without Knowing
Two years later, a review by the EPA Inspector General concluded the agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement." It reported that President George W. Bush's White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) heavily edited EPA press releases "to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."
Even though samples taken indicated asbestos levels in Lower Manhattan were between double and triple acceptable EPA levels, the CEQ downplayed the readings as just "slightly above" the limit, the IG found.
"Early on the experts didn't believe the cancers that were developing would have presented in such short period of time," Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andy Ansbro said during a phone interview. "So, they felt the two weren't connected [until] the evidence became so overwhelming they had to accept it."
In 2005, the same year the task force was created, Gov. George E. Pataki signed a bill extending a legal presumption that city workers who were part of the 9/11 cleanup operations, and who later developed diseases including cancer, respiratory illness, and certain skin ailments, would qualify for disability pensions equal to three-quarters of their final average salaries. That bill, which was strongly opposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg due to its potential cost, required applicants to have put in at least 40 hours at the lower Manhattan site. It also permitted city employees to file to be re-classified for that pension if they got sick after they retired.
Often Forced to Sue
Since then, some civil servants who had WTC-related disability claims rejected have successfully sued in court.
Three years ago, the New York City Employees' Retirement System drew criticism from elected officials over how it handled 9/11 disability claims filed by Emergency Medical Service employees and other city workers.
At the time, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a NYCERS board member, stated she was "disturbed" by constituent complaints and press reports that the system's review process "lacks transparency, consistency, and urgency in its decision-making and communication."
NYCERS reported it had received 974 applications for disability tied to the WTC law, and 263 were deemed ineligible. It said 32 percent of applicants were approved while 39 percent were denied. According to an agency spokesperson, so far this calendar year, of the 517 disability claims processed, 63 percent have been approved and 37 percent rejected.
State legislative panels have heard testimony from city workers who documented their WTC health condition and related disability to the satisfaction of the U.S. Social Security Administration, only to be rejected by NYCERS.
Use Different Standards
NYCERS maintains that the SSA's standard of review is set by Federal law and that the "Courts have routinely upheld NYCERS's determinations when they differ from the findings of the Social Security Administration."
Bus Operator Tommy McNally, who has a WTC health condition, was recently recognized by Transport Workers Union Local 100 the TWU for his 9/11 service, in a phone interview said he hoped the reauthorized task force looked into what he called New York City Transit's failure to abide by a 2017 law signed by Mr. Cuomo that granted unlimited sick time to workers in his situation. He said the agency still owed him "eight or nine days of sick time" related to treatment for prostate cancer.
"We still have no form to fill out, and they were supposed to have one," he said.
A Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman responded, "MTA employees wishing to access the WTC sick-leave benefit have successfully done so and may continue to by contacting their supervisor to submit a claim."
Michael Barasch, a leading attorney for those with WTC-related illnesses, said the task force was of greater importance now because of the toll COVID-19 has taken on 9/11 workers. "You have all these people with respiratory illnesses and compromised immune systems, so it is no wonder the 9/11 community is disproportionately affected by the coronavirus," he said.
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