June 11, 2016
By Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
New York, NY – The City Council voted June 8 to send the state legislature a home-rule message urging it to restore equal disability benefits for firefighters hired in the last seven years.
The message is part of an agreement announced June 6 between the city and unions representing firefighters, sanitation workers, and correction officers. The deal will give recently hired workers injured on the job the same disability benefits as other workers, three-fourths of their final average salary.
That agreement capped a struggle that began in 2009, when then-Gov. David Paterson, backed by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, vetoed what would have been a routine extension of a law that would have given the full 75% disability to police and firefighters hired after that date. The result was that probationary firefighters disabled by line-of-duty injuries would get only half their salary, with taxes and any Social Security payments they received deducted. That meant they got as little as $833 a month—$27 a day—according to the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
“Today’s deal began with the UFA contract resolution last year. It will restore the disability protections that were lost when Governor David Paterson vetoed Tier II in 2009,” union President Stephen Cassidy said in a statement released by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office June 6. “The UFA has always believed that every firefighter should never have to worry about who will take care of their family if they are seriously injured in the performance of duty. This bill will resolve that for over 2,000 current New York City firefighters who don’t have disability protections and for all future firefighters.”
Cassidy told LaborPress’s “Blue Collar Buzz” radio show June 8 that in talks with the mayor, he’d implored the administration that it shouldn’t force firefighters “to worry about ‘what if?’” when they run into a burning building.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association was not included in the June 6 agreements.
The deals will give “Tier 6” firefighters, sanitation workers, and correction officers—those hired after April 1, 2012—the full 75% benefit. To finance it, those firefighters will contribute 2% of their salary, with sanitation workers giving 1.6%, and correction officers 0.9%. Those contributions could be increased if an actuary determines that’s necessary to maintain adequate funding, but firefighters’ contributions cannot be more than 3%.
Benefit payments will be based on the disabled worker’s average salary over the last five years, and no single year can exceed the prior four years by more than 10%, according to the mayor’s office. Social Security payments the worker gets will not be deducted.
The increased payments for sanitation and corrections workers can be approved by the Council, because they won’t cost the city any money. Those for firefighters, however, have to be approved by the state. The mayor’s office estimates they will cost $6 million in the 2017 fiscal year, and rise to $12.6 million in 2021, because firefighters are injured more frequently.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said they were “confident and hopeful” that a measure would be enacted before the legislative session ends later this month. Both the state Senate and Assembly have already voted one out of committee, said a Uniformed Firefighters Association spokesperson, and Mayor de Blasio has sent an “urgent” message of support. Once Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs a bill, UFA members will have 120 days to opt in.
The UFA, which represents about 9,000 active city firefighters, and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, which represents more than 2,500 Fire Department officers, officially launched a campaign to equalize the benefits in March 2015, after their efforts to pass legislation in the Council were stymied by opposition from the mayor and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“We ran a campaign that was quite compelling,” says a UFA spokesperson. It included a recruiter who said the Fire Department was “telling me to lie” about the job’s “best benefits.” Ironically, he adds, a racial-discrimination lawsuit filed in 2007 and settled in 2014 required the department to seek more diverse recruits—but the over 1,400 new firefighters who graduated between 2012 and early 2015, almost half of whom were black, Latino, Asian, or female, did not receive equal benefits.
The UFA sued the Council in July 2015, charging that the leadership had unfairly thwarted members who wanted to equalize benefits. In August, when the union signed a new contract, de Blasio agreed to support ending the disparity.
“It’s certainly positive that it’s righting a wrong,” says UFOA President James Lemonda, adding that disability benefits are important “because of the dangerous jobs we do.” He said he couldn’t comment more specifically because he hadn’t seen the bill’s precise language, but praised de Blasio for sitting down with firefighters and agreeing to changes, and Cassidy and the UFA “for finally getting this important piece of legislation accomplished.”