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Alongside firefighters, police officers and other first responders, Philip Ronnie Shpiller toiled at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, working through still-smoking rubble over the course of six long days and into nights.
Shpiller, then an emergency-response plumber with the New York City Transit Authority, and another few dozen of his colleagues at the agency labored to find the remains of the dead out of a sense of duty, and to help give a measure of closure to families who lost loved ones, he said recently.
Nearly 22 years later, Shpiller, retired since July 2012 and contending with numerous ailments as a consequence of his work at ground zero, still awaits a disability pension that he says should have been granted to him and his colleagues, just as it was to those thousands of other civil servants alongside whom they sifted through the ruins of the twin towers.
“We did 16-hour days and when we were being taken back to our shop by bus at 11:30 at night, there were thousands of people lining the sidewalks holding lit candles because there was no electricity and they were thanking us and calling us heroes and yet 21 and a half years later we are still fighting for what we deserve,” Shpiller, who is now 68 and living in Florida, said.
He and his NYCTA co-workers, all of them retired, a few of them ill as a result of their work on the pile, have for years been fighting for access to three-quarter disability pensions.
Even some private-sector workers who responded to the attacks’ aftermath were legislated additional disability benefits, among them voluntary hospital EMTs and paramedics.
Despite the abundance of state and federal legislation enacted in the immediate aftermath and in ensuing years granting disability benefits to people who developed any number of health issues attributable to their presence on the site, city transit workers have so far been shut out.
And although state lawmakers from Staten Island sponsored bills starting in 2018 that would have accorded the three-quarter disability payments to affected city transit workers, the legislation did not make it to floor votes on at least four occasions.
The bill’s last iteration, introduced by then-Senator Diane Savino in 2021, failed to advance out of committee before the legislative session’s conclusion last year, with the late arrival of a fiscal note — a bill’s cost estimate — cited as the reason.
The legislation’s immediate cost as of last year was put at $8.3 million for 39 pensioners, Shpiller among them. 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 clean-up operations at ground zero.
"All of these bills are expensive. That doesn't mean it should be done,” Savino said last month.
Her successor in representing portions of Staten Island and Brooklyn, Senator Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, was looking to take up sponsorship of the legislation but was again awaiting a fiscal note, her legislative director said last month.
Numerous lawmakers and agencies did not reply to emailed inquiries and phone messages seeking clarification on why the transit workers have not been granted the three-quarter disability benefit.
Along with his Transit Authority colleagues, Shpiller was rerouted from his regular work assignments to the World Trade Center just after the first plane hit the north tower. They were tasked with shutting subway and tunnel air vents to prevent the spread of debris and associated toxins underground.
They would return the next day. “We went on the piling and we were rescue and recovery,” he said. The dust and debris were so thick that their respirator filters, typically used over the course of an eight-hour shift, were clogged within an hour. “There were no replacement filters so we had to go without anything,” Shpiller said.
Through Sept. 17, he and his TA crew worked four 16-hour days and two 12-hour days.
Shpiller has been diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress syndrome, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, which can be caused by a single exposure to high levels of an irritant or after repeated exposures to lower levels.
His treatment is being paid through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
Task force goes dormant
In the years following the attack and cleanup, the roster of workers who would gain disability protections and benefits would grow as evidence revealed that the health of an increasing number of people who labored on the pile were afflicted by toxic dust. Hundreds were already dying or dead.
To address the number of workers falling ill, state lawmakers and then-Governor David Paterson carved out an agreement in 2008 that extended eligibility for a “presumptive accidental disability retirement benefit” to 9/11 first responders and others who were not included in earlier benefit bills.
“The original legislation addressing this problem was well-intentioned but fell short in covering all first responders,” Paterson said at the time. The agreement, he added, would help “fulfill our duty to additional groups of public workers involved in the rescue, recovery and cleanup after 9-11.”
The agreement adopted recommendations from a 19-member bipartisan task force empaneled in 2005 as part of World Trade Center disability legislation. Legislation impaneling the September 11th Worker Protection Task Force mandated that it survey the health impacts of toxins at the pile and then propose legislation to address “limitations of any existing laws, regulations, programs, and services with regard to coverage, extent of disability … adequacy of coverage and treatment of specific types of disabilities.”
The task force, whose members were appointed by the governor, state lawmakers, state and city comptrollers, the New York City mayor and others, would eventually go dormant.
Recognizing that the committee was “missing critical opportunities to insert itself into the debate on how best to expand and improve the World Trade Center Presumption Law,” it was revived in 2020 for a five-year period through legislation sponsored by State Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato and signed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo.
But despite the legislation directing the task force to submit annual reports on its progress and recommendations, it appears that it has in fact not been reestablished. “As far as we are aware, the committee has not been constituted so we have yet to appoint anyone,” a spokesperson for city Comptroller Brad Lander said this month.
The state comptroller’s office and the mayor’s office did not respond to inquiries about their respective appointments to the task force.
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