September 15, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sept. 8 signed into law a bill to end the two-tier system that gives New York City firefighters who are permanently disabled on the job lower pensions if they were hired after June 2009.
The bill, passed unanimously by the state legislature in June, means that the about 2,300 current firefighters affected and all future firefighters will receive 75% of their salaries if they are disabled.
“With this critical legislation, New York City firefighters who put their lives on the line protecting the public will never have to worry about leaving themselves and their families destitute should they be seriously injured in the line of duty,” Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy said in a statement provided by the union. “All New Yorkers are now safer because of the restoration of these necessary benefits. I want to thank Gov. Cuomo for once again proving himself to be a great champion of New York’s Bravest.”
The two-tier system dates from June 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 made police and firefighters hired after that date eligible for the full 75% disability. 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 UFA.
The cuts did not have much of an impact on firefighters until 2013, when the city Fire Department ended a hiring freeze and brought on more than 2,300 new firefighters, who now are about one-fourth of the UFA’s membership. The UFA began lobbying to restore the full disability pensions, arguing that the two-tier system was unfair and endangered public safety.
“When a fire alarm sounds, NYC firefighters jump into action without hesitation, putting their health and well-being aside to protect those in need,” Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, said in the UFA statement. “The sacrifices firefighters make aren't based on their hire date, but on their commitment to saving lives.”
The breakthrough, the UFA says, came in August 2015, when Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed restoring the full 75% disability pensions, as part of the union’s contract deal with the city. On June 6, the mayor’s office announced an agreement with the unions representing firefighters, sanitation workers, and correction officers that established how those payments would be financed. Two days later, the City Council sent a home-rule message to Albany, urging the Legislature to enact a law authorizing the restoration for firefighters. State approval wasn’t necessary to increase payments for sanitation and corrections workers, because that didn’t cost the city any money.
The bill does not restore the full pension for police officers. Their unions are still trying to negotiate a contract with the city and get state legislation enacted that would make officers hired since 2009 eligible for the full 75% pension if they are disabled.