Filing for 9/11-Linked Disability Benefits is Broadened, Extended

By Sarah Dorsey Chief Leader

Three groups of public employees who missed their chance to register for lifetime disability benefits for their 9/11-related illnesses were given another opportunity earlier last month when Governor Cuomo signed a bill extending the deadline until September 2014.

Those who became eligible for the first time as a result are in one of three categories. Some of them are city employees who would have been covered under language from the original bill involving the vesting of their pensions subsequent to 9/11, except that the city Department of Law challenged their status. Department of Education workers who were originally excluded because they belonged to either the Board of Education Retirement System (including some Teachers) or the New York City Employees’ Retirement System are now eligible as well.

Piggyback on ‘Zadroga’

The third group consists of workers who as a result of their exposure to the toxins near the World Trade Center site developed diseases that were originally not covered under the 2005 bill, but were subsequently added as part of the Zadroga Act covering cops and firefighters, are also eligible for the first time. (Cops and firefighters, because they enjoy unlimited sick-leave rights, are not eligible for Workers’ Compensation, unlike the workers in this category.)

Contrary to what was stated in an earlier article, the bill does not allow all public workers who may have developed illnesses because of their exposure to the World Trade Center site to sign up for the Notice of Participation. Lou Matarazzo, the Albany lobbyist for the Detectives’ Endowment Association who is also Vice Chair of Governor Cuomo’s 9/11 Workers Protection Task Force, said a bill extending eligibility that broadly will be resubmitted in January, when the 2014 session of the State Legislature begins.

Those city and state workers who fit within one of the three newly-eligible categories can now sign an affidavit proving they worked at or near the World Trade Center site, securing the chance to receive state Workers’ Compensation benefits and enhanced pensions for disability in case of future illnesses. The state then presumes any sickness known to be triggered by 9/11-related work was caused by exposure at the site.

Offer to Seize Upon

Recovery workers who now qualify would be wise to take advantage of the bill, disability attorney Chet Lukaszewski said, especially since funding for the Federal Zadroga Act can always be rescinded by Congress, where some resistance was encountered before the measure was passed and then enacted by President Obama. In fact, some 9/11 advocates are already gearing up to fight for a Zadroga extension, since those benefits—including free medical care and economic compensation—are due to expire in 2016.

“It was patently unfair; that’s why we really had to get that done,” Mr. Matarazzo said of the bill, noting that a State Trooper or Port Authority Police Officer who’d vested his pension after September 11 would be covered for an illness that developed later, but city employees were left with nothing.

No Added Fiscal Toll?

He said he was somewhat optimistic that the bill broadening eligibility to other public employees—some of whom sent in paperwork only to learn that it had been lost—would pass next year. The bill that Governor Cuomo signed last month was originally intended to cover such workers, but some city representatives on the task force balked, claiming it would be too expensive. So they narrowed its scope and vowed to try again for the more inclusive provision next year.

“I don’t think they understand that there shouldn’t be any additional fiscal responsibility at all,” Mr. Matarazzo said. “Everyone who was down there [at the World Trade Center] was considered already” in the original 2005 law.

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