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City transit workers still awaiting 9/11 disability benefits

State legislation languishes


For six years, with every new version of a state bill that would grant them three-quarter disability pension benefits, a few dozen now-retired New York City Transit workers who worked on the World Trade Center pile and have fallen ill have been hopeful.

For six years, they’ve come away disappointed. 

Although a profusion of state and federal legislation enacted in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks and in ensuing years granted disability benefits to civil service workers who worked at the site and subsequently contracted illnesses as a result, city transit workers have so far been shut out. 

Philip Ronnie Shpiller, then an emergency-response plumber with the NYCTA who along with dozens of his colleagues labored at the site for 16-hour days for six days following the attacks, said he feels a sense of betrayal from lawmakers, several he has spoken with and those who have not responded to his appeals. 

Shpiller, 69, who retired from the authority in 2012, said he received promises from legislators or their aides as recently as this year that the lawmakers would act on the legislation, which has yet to move out of committee in several legislative sessions since it was first introduced in 2018. 

“And they said, we'll get it done beginning next year. We'll fast track it. They never did,” said Shpiller, who is dealing with numerous ailments as a consequence of his work at ground zero, including lung disease.  

Of one such legislative aide, he said, “He's been filling my head with a bunch of bullshit.”

The legislation would grant NYCTA workers who have contracted an illness as a consequence of having participated in the rescue, recovery or cleanup efforts — otherwise known as a qualifying condition — “a performance of duty” disability pension equal to 75 percent of the worker’s final average salary. 

But Shpiller and his colleagues appear to have one outspoken ally in the legislature. “They fully deserve this benefit,” Staten Island State Senator Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, the bill's sponsor, said Monday.

“Anybody who was there taking part in the pile, in the recovery, deserve these benefits,” she said, adding that she had a family member, a female firefighter, who passed away from a 9/11-related cancer. 

But Scarcella-Spanton, who succeeded Diane Savino, the legislation’s original sponsor, acknowledged that the benefit’s cost would be significant and was the likely reason the legislation has not moved. 

“Everybody's very supportive of it. I think it's just a matter of the cost and we're going to keep pushing for it because the cost really shouldn't be what's prohibitive,” she said. “There's a lot of things in New York State that we spend money on, and people's health and well-being should be at the top of that list, especially if they were involved in the recovery.”

Scarcella-Spanton said if the legislation doesn’t move forward this year, “the best course forward” would be to include the necessary funding in the Fiscal Year 2026 budget. 

Philip Ronnie Shpiller, a retired emergency plumber, is among so-far 52 retired NYCTA members who have since incurred a related illness.
Philip Ronnie Shpiller, a retired emergency plumber, is among so-far 52 retired NYCTA members who have since incurred a related illness.

‘Unknown’ number would benefit

An updated fiscal note attached to the legislation estimates a first-year cost to the Transit Authority of $11 million for the so-far 52 retired NYCTA members who incurred a qualifying condition. Those workers, Shpiller among them, are currently eligible for a performance of duty disability benefit calculated by figuring 1/60th of their final average salary times their years of service. The benefit is not less than one-third of the worker’s final average salary, less than half of what they would receive under the legislation. 

The fiscal note says it’s unclear how many of the 7,919 NYCTA workers active as of June 2023 would benefit from the three-quarters disability benefit. The legislation said an “unknown” number of people could eventually benefit, but noted that about 1,300 NYCTA employees still working had submitted forms saying they had participated in the rescue, recovery or cleanup operations at ground zero.

The bill’s Senate version awaits a vote by that body’s Civil Service and Pensions Committee. 

Shpiller said he recently spoke with Sam Fein, the policy director for the committee’s chairman, Senator Robert Jackson, and received an assurance that Jackson would “push to get this through.” 

A representative for the state senator did not respond to requests to speak with Jackson. 

The office of Assembly Member Stacey Pheffer Amato, who sponsored companion legislation in that chamber and is a self-described champion of both 9/11 first responders and unionized transit workers, also did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Pheffer Amato about the legislation's prospects.


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